Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

0316Salamon_KLHturntable

Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the task. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference–at this level there’s no order–but just as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs in all the world; many others circle around them. But I will go ahead and name them.

The first is Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I heard them play it live in San Francisco. There was a time when I played it over and over again. But even after that, it kept coming back to mind. I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. It crosses boundaries of language, culture, age, musical style, and more. When they played it in Törökszentmiklós in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song comes close to reminding me of when I was a baby in Brazil. She is from Capo Verde, not Brazil, but her voice, the language, and the music bring back memories, not in any explicable way, but in a way I can’t shake off either. Maybe that’s what a good song does: take on the quality of an old, old memory. But besides that, I love the rhythm and Cesaria Evora’s deep, knowing voice. This video is beautiful, too.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” It is majestic, with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the fourth selection.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Radio

Antique-Radio-1

The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and hope we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

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Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always verge on wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come even closer to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from settling on a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep me delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is about as anti-music-video as they come; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” (“Even I’ll adore you”) raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.

Song Series #4: What Is a Song?

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What is a song? It’s sung, and it often has a recognizable structure (verse-chorus, for instance). It’s memorable; something about it makes you want to sing along. But there’s more still; in a song, the music affects the lyrics and vice versa. Words and wordlessness interplay. Here are four classic examples.

In “Canción del árbol del olvido,” by Alberto Ginastera and Fernán Silva Valdés, performed by Víctor Jara, the lyrics are brief and haunting, ending in a reversal (forgetting to forget). The guitar tones and arpeggios carry the words languorously along, slowing down to stillness and then resuming; the song feels like it falls asleep and wakes up, again and again.

These are the lyrics:

En mi pago hay un árbol
que del olvido se llama
donde van a consolarse
vidalita, los moribundos del alma.

Para no pensar en vos
en el árbol del olvido
me acosté una nochecita
vidalita, y me quedé bien dormido.

Al despertar de aquel sueño
pensaba en vos otra vez
pues me olvidé de olvidarte
vidalita, en cuantito me acosté.

For the next song, I have to name “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. It’s an incredible example of how the music transforms the lyrics. On the page, they look like nothing, but in the music, they become a ring of fire itself; the repeated words (“down, down, down, down,” etc.) are flames leaping up. I love the off-kilter, varying measure counts, often found in Carter Family songs. Here’s the original version, sung by Anita Carter; after that and the lyrics, I’ll include the Johnny Cash version (1963), for which he brought in trumpets (an unusual choice for him). It was the Cash version that made the song famous, but I love the Carter version more.

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bringing her to the heart’s desire
I fell in to a ring of fire

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When two fiery hearts meet
I believed you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

I wasn’t sure what to choose for the third. I had a few songs in mind, but they seemed remote from the first two; I will bring them up some other time. Then I had a dream about Ecclesiastes in the form of a song, and remembered–or maybe learned–that such a song exists: Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” covered by The Byrds, Nina Simone, and many others. The music gives the lyrics a mood different from what I would expect: something sparkling and thoughtful at once. Almost the entire song consists of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Only a few words (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) are Seeger’s own. Yet the music and those lyrical additions turn the Biblical passage into a dreamy yet grounded song.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And how different and gorgeous the Nina Simone version:

Well, this brought me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” beloved around the world. The melody, instruments, and intonations bring out the song’s complex tones. I love Leonard Cohen’s original more than any cover, but as far as covers go, I am drawn to Regina Spektor’s, especially this performance with cello.

That is all for this installment of the song series. The next one will focus on songs with a sense of the absurd.

I took the photo in Central Park on Friday, August 2.

To see the first three installments of the song series, go here, here, and here.

Nyílik a szem (The eye opens)

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This morning, on the way to the Dallas Institute, I was listening to 1LIFE’s song “Kopog a szív” and getting caught up in the phrase “nyílik a szem” (“the eye opens”). The song lands on it, by surprise, and repeats it, and returns to it, and stays there; the song is about a lot of things, but part of it is about suddenly seeing what is going on. To me, its montage of images tells a story, or two; different listeners will hear different stories in it.

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It fit well (though unintentionally) with today’s discussions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and yesterday’s of Aeschylus’s Eumenides, both having to do with the opening of the eyes (as tragedy generally does). When things (like a song and a play) come together without planning, they set off many thoughts. I was thinking all day about having the eyes opened and what this can mean in different forms and places: in the plays we are reading, in this song, and beyond. When your eyes are opened to yourself, whether in tragedy or in song, there are two sides to it: you realize what you have done, and you realize who you are. Also, this opening of the eyes can’t be taken back. It can be terrible or joyful, but it’s there for good.

It isn’t just an intellectual consideration; I think of vivid moments in my life when my eyes were opened in some way, through a meeting with another person, through accident, through loss, through poetry, through learning, through mistakes.

The song opened up to me slowly over the past months; I enjoyed its melody and rhythm from the start but needed some time to grasp the lyrics, since I am still far from fluent in Hungarian. I remember hearing it in concert (at Európa-nap, I think) and suddenly understanding “nyílik a szem.” The rest came from there. It is now one of my favorite 1LIFE songs. (I have previously commented here on “Maradok ember” and “Kapcsolj ki!“)

Here is a video of the song, which contains the lyrics; and below it, my tentative translation. I took a few liberties and may have made some outright mistakes. It is a start; I will make corrections and improvements over time. “Szem” can be taken in a singular or plural sense. I first translated it as “eyes” (“the eyes open”) but later my eye opened and I changed my mind. “Eye” in English can also have a general or plural meaning, and all the other images in the chorus are singular (or archetypal).  “Nyílik a szem” could also be translated as “the eye is opened,” but that suggests that it has already happened, whereas here it seems to be happening right in the moment. “The eye opens” does not fit the rhythm of the song, even in translation–but it is more vivid and direct than the alternatives I considered. So I will leave it as is.

over the housetops, the sky
in the lonely streets, the wind
see our brain does not converse
gut and feeling, what goes with them?

infinity is in our cells
fear resides in our bones
suddenly a stroke of luck
makes our fingers interlock

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, the heart knocks

this is all that our eyes see
from the sky a cloud cries onto us
the truth has no clothes
our empty room is overcrowded

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens, the eye opens

winter comes, summer goes
it would come but can’t find its way
on goes the light, click of machine
the ice melts, but the heart knocks,
the heart knocks, it stands in the door,
it waits for the key, the lock gives way,
quiet in the room, order on the shelf,
the eyes opens, the eye opens,
the eye opens

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I took all three photos today. The first and third are of the Dallas Institute; the second, of the dashboard of my rental car. The video was made by Zsombor Papp; the song “Kopog a szív” is by 1LIFE, and its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai.

I made a few additions and an important correction to this piece after posting it: “kopog a szív” means “the heart knocks,” not “the heart beats.”This correction is important because first of all, it’s accurate; second, it’s a fresher image than “the heart beats”; and third, it goes with the door, lock, and everything else. It affects everything. Also, I commented a little more on “nyílik a szem” (which I first translated as “the eyes open” but then changed to “the eye opens”).

Song Series #3: Songs from Childhood

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Which songs do we love in childhood, and why (if a reason can even be found)? Which of these do we remember years later? Almost all children are drawn to songs; songs, from the lullaby to the playground chants, come up every day, even many times a day, in a child’s life. At least partly through songs, children start to learn to speak; even now, I find that songs help me learn languages. Songs give you phrases and melodies that you can take with you everywhere. You can play around with them, changing the words here and there, speeding them up, slowing them down. Songs also open up new experiences; they show you the world in a new way. That is true of the four songs I chose to include here. I heard all of them before the age of eleven.

The first is a lullaby. My mom sang it to me, and I heard it many times in my childhood, from infancy onward. I discovered only now that the text is part of Tennyson’s poem “The Princess.” It is known as “Sweet and Low.”

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

I knew as a small child that the song was sad. I think it made me sob once or twice. But I loved imagining the “Silver sails all out of the west / Under the silver moon.” That was my favorite part of the melody too. Here is a recording by Bette Midler.

The second song, “Ah, Lovely Meadows”(an English translation of a Czech folksong), comes with a distinct memory. I was five or six; I know this because we still lived in Amherst. A few girls had come over; they were a year or two older than me. They sang this song, and I was amazed at how they could sing the fast words of the chorus so clearly, so precisely. I wanted to be able to sing fast like that. In retrospect, it wasn’t particularly fast, but it seemed rapid then. The rendition by the Friedell Middle School Choir sounds almost exactly like my memory of the song.

Now I skip from age five to nine. I was in fifth grade, and somehow a classmate and I (I think her name was Susie, though I could be imagining this because of the song) discovered that we could listen to records in the school library (together, with headphones on). That’s what we did. I remember how delighted we were with “Crocodile Rock” (written by Elton John and Ernie Taupin; performed by Elton John). I had never heard a song like that before; I didn’t know they existed. It had just come out that year. All this time, I have had the wrong lyrics in my head in several places. In other places I couldn’t tell what the lyrics were (and it didn’t matter at the time).

When I learned the fourth song (in Holland, at age 10, during a musical event involving the Nederlandse Pijpersgilde, the bamboo flute players’ guild), I was enchanted by the lyrics, which I didn’t fully understand or learn correctly. Somehow, in my mind, “Charlie will come again” turned into “Nature will try again.” Written by Sir Harold Boulton, the “Skye Boat Song” begins:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward! the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye

Here is a recording by Alastair McDonald:

Putting this post together, I came to understand how a song can appeal to a child’s–or anyone’s–curiosity. You hear it and want to learn it and learn more about it. You might try to track down the lyrics, or learn the melody, or figure out what it means, or listen to it again and again, but beyond all that, you know that something happened to you when you heard it, and years later you remember those few minutes, even the faces in the room, the colors, the record spinning and shining on the turntable, the glance of glee.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night.

Here are the links to the first and second posts in the song series.

Song Series #2: Presser/Csík, Art of Flying, Waits

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On this blog I recently started a song series, in which I intend to present songs I have introduced in class, am planning to introduce, or wish to include for any reason. My main purpose is to draw attention to songs themselves and what they can hold and do–but purposes aside, this is fun. The first post focused on songs that I had brought to various classes and that we had sung along with cello.

This time, I will introduce three songs that remind me of each other in some way, whether musically, lyrically, or otherwise. All three are tremendous (they come up to you slowly and then shake something up in you); all have to do with love in a broken and transitory world. They all convey hope in some way without sidestepping loss and sadness. The Gábor Presser and Art of Flying songs remind me of each other melodically and rhythmically (in the chorus); the Presser and Tom Waits, lyrically. The Art of Flying lyrics stand apart. The similarities between these songs compelled me to consider them together; their differences are even more interesting than what they share.

The song “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” (“You will take my hand and take me home”), written by Presser, has to do with two people staying together even after everything and everyone else leaves them–youth, money, comfort, health, family, friends. Here are two different renditions; each one brings something different out of the song. It was Marcell Bajnai’s cover that introduced me to the song; I then heard it in a concert by the band Csík (this past Saturday night). Although I love the instrumental parts of the Csík version (and the way they transform the song), Marcell’s cover brings out the lyrics and gives them room. The mood of his rendition is different too: more reflective or matter-of-fact than exuberant.

Now listen to Art of Flying’s “Tomorrow” (one of my favorite songs in the world, on their wonderful album “Garden of Earthly Delights“); you will hear how the two choruses remind me of each other. As far as I know, there’s no video of the song; the recording is up on their Bandcamp site, where you can listen to all of their albums. I am proud to have played cello on one of their songs. Here, by following the link below (in an image of the record cover), you can listen to “Tomorrow” and read the lyrics, which begin:

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

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These lyrics, like many Art of Flying lyrics, hold a range of times; they are ancient and modern, immediate and evocative at once. The vocal harmonies go so gently along that you hardly realize what is happening to you until the song is over and you think, wait, what? How did that song get into my bones?

Finally, here is Tom Waits’s “Time.” The similarity between these and Presser’s lyrics lies not just in the theme, but in the relation between verse and chorus; in both, the verses (mostly) hold the brokenness, and the choruses the simple affirmation. Also, both speak of the future in some way; although Csík refers to physical action (taking a person’s hand and bringing the person home) and Waits to some metaphysical state (of it being “time” for something), they both speak of something that will endure or come into being. It was the Presser/Csík song that reminded me of the Waits song and how great it is.

That wraps it up for the second installment of the song series. Next time, unless some other ideas occur in the meantime, I intend to present a few songs that have had special importance to me over the decades, songs that have stood out as favorites over time.

I took the photo by the Zagyva river on Sunday night.

Update: After writing this post, I realized (on my own) that I had made an error: “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” is written by Gábor Presser; this is stated in Marcell Bajnai’s video credits, but I mistakenly thought he was a member of Csík. The Csík version is a cover; in the video, Presser performs it with them. I adjusted the post and title accordingly (and made some other edits too, while I was at it). Here is Presser’s own recording of the song. This adds to the correspondences; his voice and Waits’s have a similar texture.

From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!

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My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

 

 

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

 

 

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song (by Gábor Presser) I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.

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Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*

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*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..

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Song Series # 1: Dylan, Waits, Sparks/Denver, ERQ

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Since birth, more or less, I have had songs in my life, whether through hearing them, singing them, playing them, dancing to them, teaching them, writing about them, writing them, trying to remember them, seeking them out at record stores, or carrying them in my mind. Songs are some of the first things we hear in the world. So why start a song series on my blog?

When teaching certain songs in English and Civilization classes, I have realized that students really take to them (flopped lessons aside) and often haven’t heard them before. I want to keep track of a few of the songs I teach (or hope to teach) and give students a way to find them again. For each song, I will post a video or recording and the lyrics. Your comments are welcome!

Here are four songs that I taught to several classes this week (we sang them, and I played cello accompaniment): “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan; “Today” by Randy Sparks, sung by John Denver and others; “Come On Up to the House” by Tom Waits (I include both his recording and Sarah Jarosz’s cover); and “More Bad Times” by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Here’s a 1963 live performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Here is Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House” (first his own recording, and then a wonderful cover by Sarah Jarosz):

Well, the moon is broken, and the sky is cracked.
Come on up to the house.
The only things that you can see is all that you lack.
Come on up to the house.

All your cryin’ don’t do no good.
Come on up to the house.
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.
You gotta come on up to the house.

Come on up to the house.
Come on up to the house.
The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
You got to come on up to the house.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire.
Come on up to the house.
And your singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir.
You got to come on up to the house.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish, and short.
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy, and you can’t find no port.
Gotta come on up to the house, yeah.

And now for “Today,” as sung live by John Denver:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing
Today….

And finally (for today), a beloved song by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, “More Bad Times,” as performed at the Rat in Boston. (The lyrics vary a little from version to version.)

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never had rabies
You never gained weight
You never came home with a scar
You never drank poison
You watched what you ate
You never so much as put a scratch on my car.

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never got measles
You never had gout
You never threw up at parades
You never got dizzy
You never fell out
You never picked up any live hand grenades

So many things did go wrong
But the list is not long enough
Not enough bad things to fill up a song

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never lost contacts
You never leaked oil
You never fell to sticks and stones
You never drank cleanser
You never ate foil
You never choked on any big chicken bones

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

And that wraps it up for the first installment of the song series. More to come, over time!

Image credit: House on the Hill (1902) by Pablo Picasso, courtesy of http://www.PabloPicasso.org.