Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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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 Cabo 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.

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.