Saturday, March 31, 2012
The Decemberists deliver a rousing version--almost a call to arms--of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.” The quintet called Low Anthem in contrast doesn’t do much with Ewan MacColl’s thoughtful but tame number “School Days Over.” And hot duo The Civil Wars wrote a new song for the occasion titled “Lily Love” that sounds as old as “Peggy Gordon” or “My Lagan Love.” But one track
“All right,” I said to myself, “a fine performance of Stephen Foster’s major work, his social justice piece in the guise of a beautiful parlor song.” But when I looked at the publishing info, what I saw was “Trad., arr. Paddy Moloney.” I’d say that’s a bit greedy, even if legally accurate. Yes, the copyright no longer belongs to Foster or his descendants, but anyone who loves the song or happens upon it during yet another recession/Depression, would I think resent Moloney’s cavalier and unwarranted takeover; definite echoes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and other copyright skaters. Why didn’t Burnett or the record label (Hear Music, and isn’t that the Starbucks music spinoff?) speak up? I can’t imagine any economic hassles lurking when the item is over 150 years old…
Foster wrote “Hard Times” in 1854; he was only 28 but aware of the peaks of his earlier successes receding. “Susanna,” “Swanee River,” “Jeanie,” “Old Kentucky
Foster rose to the occasion, producing lyrics that had a conscience rather than a broken heart, championing the poor rather than the rich, the “have-nots” rather than the “haves,” the 99 percenters with their noses pressed up against the glass rather than the one percent sitting enthroned inside—with his flowery language carried, and bested, by a graceful melody:
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
[Chorus here, then:]
While we seek mirth and beauty, and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
There are more verses saying much the same, plus--following each four-line verse--this lovely, minimalist, personalized chorus reiterating sorrow and hope):
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary;
Hard Times, Hard Times, come again no more:
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
Foster’s vocal works have suffered ups and downs—picked as state songs, but picked over as stilted and sentimental; sung one year by world-circling African-American
The first recorded version came in 1905, an Edison cylinder from the Edison Male Quartette—haven’t heard it—but the first performance to be remembered was circa 1930 by the Graham Brothers, rescued from obscurity and made available on a Yazoo anthology CD titled after the song. (Variations found on this CD and other
I can’t cite precise documentation but from the Depression forward there have been versions as diverse as--let’s say--Al Jolson and Nelson Eddy, the Sons of the Pioneers and Johnny Cash, the Robert Wagner Chorale and Thomas Hampson, fiddler Darol Anger (with Willie Nelson) and various American orchestras celebrating Foster as composer. (Two more who'd have done classic versions seem not to have in fact: The Blue Sky Boys and current fave Allison Krause.) But “Hard Times” really
Among the better (maybe just bigger-name) versions I know of since then: the McGarrigle Sisters for a Civil War songs CD, Emmylou Harris live, and Mary Black with and without De Danann; all beautifully sung, all a tetch safe. Rather than a lullaby, I believe “Hard Times” can exhibit steely beauty, and
Simpler but also worth examining are the versions recorded by Dylan (solo, on Good As I Been to You) and James Taylor (buoyed carefully by trio of virtuosi Yo Yo Ma, Mark O’Conner, and Edgar Meyer, on the CD titled American Journey). Next to the
Meanwhile, Bob’s croak… I mean voice, has weathered, given up any pretense of innate musicality, become as cracked granite (occasionally chipped marble) rather than the grand cackle of his debut album and early performances, which startled the folk world squarely (or maybe hip-ly) into the 20th century. Here he sounds angry, tired, ironic, excited, determined… and still cool. In fact I would place this rendition--words and melody composed by America’s first great songwriter, sung (maybe “wrenched forth” would be more accurate) by the later
But the “Hard Times” continued. Early in 2010, at the star-fired "Hope for Haiti" benefit concert, big-voiced Mary J. Blige essayed her own soul-saving version, much in the manner of Aretha Franklin in her heyday--that is, start slowly, gradually wander further from the melody, scat sing a whole section, find the big finish. Solid vocalizing… albeit by the numbers rather than lived on the pulses.
And so to Bruce Springsteen: during the 2009 tour, in his street-smart, "Man of the People" mode, Bruce began featuring Foster’s parlor lament as the pause and lead-in to the rock-full-bore final section of each three-hour show. He stops the non-stop performing (and that’s just the mammoth crowd filling every inch of London’s Hyde
We’ve gone the long way ‘round… to arrive back at the most recent major performance of “Hard Times,” that of Moloney’s Chieftains and Paolo Nutini. As I suggested above, there’s much to recommend about this CD, from the sheer exuberance of elder Chieftains and young Turk folkies, to the grand and varied set
But Nutini does sing all four verses, so we get to hear the fourth, which is often omitted and which reminds us to consider a worst case scenario:
'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave;
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave:
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
So… Stephen, Mavis, Bob, Emmylou, Bruce--you too, Paolo--answer me this: Why, oh why, can’t our Congress and Supreme Court just forgo all the hubris and learn to “sup sorrow with the poor”?
Friday, March 23, 2012
I was one of them. I loved his jittery energy, his sly jokes and puns, which usually had to be seen on the page rather than heard—his “grasshopper” poem, for example, with the letters jumping around, gradually assembling themselves in the right order, or the deceptively simple, quick-spoken word clusters in something like “Buffalo Bill’s
Around 1970 I actually came close to producing a short film that would have pictorialized, inventively I think, several of his most charming poems. I wrote the script and obtained the approval of the cummings estate, but just before we began production, a new letter from the lawyers arrived, rescinding the go-ahead; some copyright disagreements were forcing the estate to put the lid on everything, and the letter claimed it would be months or even years before the matters could be resolved.
I remember that the first poem shown was to be this one--from which I quote excerpts, dear lawyers, in order to convey a sense of the joy and wonder we had hoped to capture on film. By the way, blogspot refuses to accept and so duplicate cummings' playful, peculiar spacing:
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee…
That’s when “eddieandbill come running” and “bettyandisbel come dancing”—up from the mud, leaving their childhood games behind, perhaps beginning a new but older dance...
(This balloon-man version of Pan, piping the young to mischief, is still a more innocent character than, say, the ever-goatish Picasso. That P.P. and e.e. looked as though they might be brothers is an odd coincidence.)
Beat Poetry, Concrete Poetry, the so-called New York Poets, in fact just about anyone romantic enough to pen a love-lyric poem in the 20th century, discovered cummings somewhere along his or her "Imagine-O Line" and typically--or typographically, more likely--incorporated elements of his skills and style (from puns to punctuation, from pique to piquancy) in their own markedly different poems.
I played around with his verse techniques myself in those crazy salad days--never got anything worth dredging up here--but many years later I did write a brief, high-energy piece that maybe gives a nod and a wink to the spirited hijinx of old “hee-hee”:
Without malice, in ecstasy
of the day, the gray wolves
across the way are scattering
seagulls in a pinwheel flutter,
trotting to and fro amid
the glitter of wobbling wings,
dazzle so bright both gulls
and wolves flare nearly white,
sunlight firing the trellis
of nobby twigs and fencewire,
each dazed and glazed thing
chiming that Spring impels
the sap of running and budding,
churning, birds spiring, Great
Wheel vibrantly turning
another notch today in always,
tattered white peacock
needing no cloak of light
to screech his word of praise.
So thanks and a tip of the poet’s laurels to edward estlin cummings. (Can’t call him “e.e.c.” without endangering our Euro trade policies, I guess, but “cunnings” was a felicitous coinage.) He was blameless and shameless, braver and graver; judgmental and sentimental, political and metaphysical; outrageous and contagious, rudely comical and lewdly anatomical--too clever by half, but always chipper; forever wholly aware… and hipper.
I hope young people continue to discover and embrace cummings' best poems. I do know that even us oldsters can still appreciate lines like these, ending one of his hundreds of inventive sonnets, so wild and fierce and free:
I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.
(Hmmm... dancing with stars... does have a certain ring to it...)
Friday, March 16, 2012
A half hour past our scheduled start, Bonnie telephoned me in the lobby with
On February 29, 2012--40 years and four months later--my wife and I boarded a plane heading SXSE to Texas, intending to visit relatives in Austin a week ahead of this year’s SXSW Music Fest, with me also hoping that some interesting band might be booked early into one of the many clubs.
Thinking back to 1970 and '71, all of the original “Friends” (such as Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Rita Coolidge, etc.) had moved on, and three of those major players had
That would be the same Bobby Whitlock who also played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass box set, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (uncredited), and many other albums including maybe a dozen of his own; who left the music business for most of 15 years, but who resurfaced in the late Nineties with a new partner on-stage and off named CoCo Carmel; and who just happened to be playing the opening set at an Austin pub on the Sunday of our visit. I never had gotten that sitdown with the long-since-divorced Bramletts, but here was one of their main men and a top musician who might still have some magic in him.
Michael Lunceford (brother-in-law, wine merchant, and photographer responsible for the larger in-concert shots enriching this blog piece) knows the Saxon Pub well, so we headed on over, settled in at a table close to the small stage, and waited. I
When he and CoCo and the band took the stage for a quick soundcheck, we could see
The set they played that night was fine Gospel-influenced Southern Rock, Memphis to Mobile, Augusta to Austin, riven and driven by Bobby’s hard-won, gravelly joy and CoCo’s lift-him-up harmonies and instrumental solos. Yet the whole performance seemed somewhat pro forma and generic--“I’m a Soul man, I’m your whole Man”--a judgment reinforced by the new CD they were featuring, and hawking, with the strange title Esoteric (no number apparent, on The Domino Label), which meanders along and muscles its way through Son House’s version of “John the Revelator” and vaguely spiritual/philosophical pieces that evidently match much of
As the roadies and band disassembled wiring and amps and drum kit, I also learned that the Whitlocks had been Saxon Pub’s weekly featured act for a couple of years in
So maybe I was leaping to a wrong conclusion. Maybe the four were having an off night; maybe I was tired, or distracted by the past. I’ll give the new CD a few more spins and listen harder. With so many major performers of the Sixties and early Seventies tired or retired, dead or getting there too quickly, we should all be celebrating the Soul Survivors… the Whitlocks of Rock.
Friday, March 9, 2012
I first got to know him slightly about 45 years ago when we both worked for the original Seattle Magazine, David as an ad salesman and me pretending to be a journalist, or at least a features writer. I was still an amorphous kid, really, but David was already a confirmed baseball scholar and serious fly fisherman. In fact he was already becoming known for the brim-down sailor-styled cap (suitable for attaching flies, I always assumed) that became his quirky identifying
I soon moved on to a screenwriter job with an educational film company and then a lengthy slot as a writer-producer in the creative end of advertising. And David somehow became a bookseller with a small shop a few blocks south of Seattle’s Pioneer Square, antiquarian but specializing (I think) in his
One day in 1972 he asked me if I had any interest in the comic strips of the Thirties—from the Phantom and Buck Rogers and Tarzan, to Blondie and Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids; it seemed he’d acquired some old newspaper comic sections…
Bill Gaines, Al Williamson, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Marie and John Severin, Roy Krenkel, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, Will Elder, Joe Orlando, Jerry DeFuccio, George Evans, Johnny Craig… My stars, what a line-up: best of the Fifties creators of non-superhero comics all gathered together in a Manhattan hotel for three glorious days. I met personal favorites, I got autographs, I shot the breeze, I bought collector stuff…
And I recognized, and scooped up immediately, and went straightaway to return, the valuable left-behind samples portfolio of an aspiring young artist named William Stout, who was already assisting Russ Manning on the current Tarzan strip, and mischievous Harvey Kurtzman on Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” series, plus contributing comics to L.A.’s many car
My fortuitous portfolio-save led to an immediate and continuing, decades-long friendship. Bill and I (and our cheerful wives) have shared many a fine gathering
So I do owe a great friendship in part to David’s kind offer 40 years ago. But in the right sort of coincidence, Bill too visited David’s store several times and no doubt spent some good money there, as did other artists (The New Yorker’s Richard Merkin for one), plus an international network of baseball fans, bass fishermen, and book-basic friends (with maybe a basso profundo or two thrown in) who discovered David’s intimate but expansive little bookstore and kept coming back for more.
(Ishii photos copyright the Seattle Times.)