Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rabbit Box

SONG: Rabbit Box

BY: Vic Chesnutt

PERFORMED BY: Vic Chesnutt

APPEARS ON: Little (Texas Hotel)

It has taken awhile for the news of Vic Chesnutt’s death to sink in. As many know, this uniquely talented singer-songwriter died on Christmas day as the result of an overdose; whether this overdose was intentional or not may never be known, tho Chesnutt apparently had some history of suicide attempts. His death is also being seen as an indictment of the U.S. healthcare system, as he’d accrued quite large amounts of debt despite being insured. Chesnutt was in poor health—he had been paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident in 1983.

Such a devastating event would have been enough to turn many away from any thought of a creative career, but in Chesnutt’s case, the accident seems to have focused his resolve in terms of music & songwriting—despite the fact that his injury compromised his strength & dexterity & forced him to rely on relatively simple chord shapes for his composing. In many ways, Chesnutt turned this liability into a virtue, because the directness & spareness of his guitar-playing makes it all the more immediate & compelling in the context of his songs.

His lyrics are always wonderfully literate—he had considerable gifts as a writer, & was also a voracious reader of poetry; he favored Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens & Whitman, & in fact set two Stevie Smith poems to music (“Not Waving, But Drowning” & “One of Many.”) However, saying that his lyrics are “literate” shouldn’t suggest any sort of preciousness, nor should it suggest that his words are anything other than immediate—immediacy is one of the great characteristics of his art.

Chesnutt’s 1990 debut album Little is to my mind one of the great singer-songwriter documents. He had spent the mid to late 80s performing both in bands & solo in Athens, GA, where he was spotted by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who produced Little—in Chesnutt’s own words, “Mr Stipe…single handedly toted me to this cozy hotel.” The songs on the album do in the main tackle “little” subjects—small incidents, especially remembered from childhood; these small incidents, however, always seem to expand in Chesnutt’s handling to a suggestion of much larger issues.

His song “Rabbit Box” is a fine example of this. Ostensibly a song about two rather mundane childhood incidents, we can see how the stories of trapping a possum & a kitten in the live trap he’d made & shooting pigeons he believed to be doves speak to the chaos of childhood discovery—not necessarily a “wonderful” thing as portrayed in a sentimental vein, but something that can be disturbing & unsettling. There is also more than a bit of suggestion of randomness in these stories, & especially in the case of his dove hunting, of random violence. As Chesnutt sang in the song “Speed Racer” on the same album:

the idea of divine order is essentially crazy
the laws of action and reaction are the closest thing to truth in the universe

Of course, there is some sly humor in “Rabbit Box” as well—note the audience reaction at the end of the song in the video below. This humor doesn’t undercut the song’s bigger themes, but in some ways serves to deepen them by making them more real.

Chesnutt’s death is a great loss. I suspect that his star may shine more brightly as time goes by—in his life, he was much more a “cult figure” than a star. If this is your first encounter with his music, I hope it will spur you to seek more. If, like me, his music has been important to you, I hope you will celebrate his tremendous legacy even in the shadow of his death.

Rabbit Box

while I was still in elementary school
I discovered Daddy's tools
and amassed a small pile of scrap lumber
and I built a rabbit box; set it facing north
but caught a possum and a kitten
both of which were a bitch to set free
cause I thought they were going to bite me
but we all three escaped safely

once I took my single shotgun
put on some camouflage
hid in the neighbor's pasture by the cow pond
finally after a long time
a bunch of doves flew by
and landed in a huddle on the power line
so I aimed with an eagle eye and fired
but it was two pigeons that fell like bean bags into the weeds
well they sure looked like doves to me

Vic Chesnutt

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

White Christmas - Bing Crosby

SONG White Christmas

WRITTEN BY Irving Berlin


APPEARS ON The 78-rpm soundtrack album for the film Holiday Inn

I know, I know, but somebody had to do it, so I volunteer.

This is the quintessential American Christmas song. Bing Crosby's version of it is the best selling single of all time. Versions ranging from Bing's original to The Drifters to the Mantovani Magic Strings to fer pete's sake Andrea Bocelli blast at you from the sound systems of every shopping mall in the US and Canada.

Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1940, but the circumstances under which it was written changed every time Berlin told the story (typical Berlin behavior!). The first public performance was by Bing Crosby on his The Kraft Music Hall radio show on Christmas Day, 1941. Crosby recorded the song for Decca Records in May of 1942, and was released on July 30 as part of the soundtrack for the movie Holiday Inn, both in the movie and on a 78-rpm album. The song spent eleven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in that year. It was re-released for the holiday season in 1945 and 1946, and went back to the top of the charts both times, making it the only single with three separate runs at the top of the US charts.

What's the appeal? Mostly nostalgia. The song was released at a time when many American men were going to war in the South Pacific, and visions of an old-fashioned Christmas complete with snow and sleigh bells and all were bound to appeal to boys and men far from home in conditions the exact opposite of those portrayed in the song. After that it just became a natural part of the Christmas season in the American public venue - on the radio, on TV, and in the movies. I even saw it named in a mystery short story, supposedly playing in the background of a ransom tape sent to the parents of a kidnapped child! Let's face it, this song is mapped into our national DNA.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

Just like the ones I used to know 

Where the treetops glisten, 
and children listen 

To hear sleigh bells in the snow 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

With every Christmas card I write 

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

With every Christmas card I write 

May your days be merry and bright 

And may all your Christmases be white
Naturally, the video selected is the segment from the movie Holiday Inn, with Bing and Marjorie Reynolds, although the singing voice was dubbed in by Martha Mears. Is there anybody in the Western World who hasn't seen this scene at least once? Heh, heh! I doubt it. Have a great holiday, Just A Song contributors and fans!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nina Simone : Four Women

SONG: Four Women

BY: Nina Simone


APPEARS ON: Wild is the Wind (1966)

While I had really good men in my life to shape and guide me, much of who I am can be attributed to the number of strong women around me. They helped shape my character and personality as much as any other factor. I guess that’s why I find African American women of all ages such fascinating creatures. They all seem to have an aura that is a product of carrying a race through struggle. You can even see it in the younger ones that haven’t approached the age to take on this responsibility. There is something about a sister when you look into her eyes that makes me want to find out there she's been and what she's been through. They are all different shades and sizes with different attitudes and personalities. The way they approach life is directly related to their backgrounds and upbringing. Some are soft spoken and choose to speak when necessary. Some are loud and boisterous and everyone knows when they are in the room. Some are emotional and cry quickly for reasons men have problems understanding. Others have grown accustomed to having to be so tough that it's hard for them to show any emotion outwardly even though they feel it deep inside. Some are educated with book knowledge. Others went to the school of hard knocks. Some are outgoing and like to have a good time. Others are reserved and prefer to be alone. I think they are all beautiful in their own way and this song reminds me of that.

Nina Simone recorded the song Four Women in 1966. It was released on the album 'Wild is the Wind'. Ms. Simone sings about the physical and mental design of four different women. They are Aunt Sarah, Safronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches. I don't know this for sure but I am willing to bet that these were not actual women that Nina Simone knew personally. In her description of each person she describes them in a way that explains who they are and why they are the kind of women she is singing about. When I was reading about the song I discovered that some people in the African American community felt the song was drawing on stereotypes. I guess you could feel that way if you took every person described in the song in a literal sense. I think the part that those people missed was the fact that although she described four women with different backgrounds and personalities, the one thing that they have in common is that all of their journeys are connected by our history in America. It's a testament to how our lives and outlook have been shaped over time.

I was late to the discovery of Nina Simone's music. This song was recommended to me by a friend and I have been hooked on it ever since. This remains my favorite song of hers because of the subject matter.


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

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shoals of Herring - Makem & Clancy

SONG Shoals of Herring


PERFORMED BY Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy

APPEARS ON This was a tune they did in concert; I can't find it on an album or CD.

A couple of hours ago I heard a sad piece of news: Liam Clancy, the last of the legendary Clancy Brothers and long-time musical partner of the late Tommy Makem, passed away earlier today. He was 74.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were the voice of Irish traditional music to the US popular audience. If you thought of Irish music in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, these were the voices you heard. Their records were everywhere, they were on all the variety shows - Ed Sullivan, of course, and the Johnny Cash show among others - and all the folk festivals. They were certainly no strangers here in Newport, both with the Newport Folk Festival and the various Irish heritage festivals which pop up here and there through the year.

Liam Clancy on his own was a gifted musician who had a strong following in the Folk Music community. He was good buddies with Bob Dylan, and he often sang with and sang on the albums of Dylan, Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Odetta, and others. He was the youngest Clancy brother and by far the most popular; he was also the only Clancy brother to have documentaries made of his life - the 2006 Irish Television documentary The Legend of Liam Clancy and the 2009 full length biography by Alan Gilsenan called The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy,

I chose the song "Shoals of Herring" because I heard Liam and Tommy sing this on many occasions here in Newport, and because the song was written by one of my favorite songwriters and folk artists, Ewan MacColl. Besides being a tourist town, Newport also has a considerable commercial fishing fleet, and songs of the sea and of fishing for a living are big here. It may be why Liam and Tommy always sang it when they visited us. It's not a landlubber's fantasy about life out on the sea; it's a working fisherman's song about his life of hard work, long days, and long stretches out to sea.

With our nets and gear we're faring
On the wild and wasteful ocean.
Its there that we hunt and we earn our bread
As we hunted for the shoals of herring

O it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbor I was faring
As a cabinboy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

O the work was hard and the hours long
And the treatment, sure it took some bearing
There was little kindness and the kicks were many
As we hunted for the shoals of herring

O we fished the Swarth and the Broken Bank
I was cook and I'd a quarter sharing
And I used to sleep standing on my feet
And I'd dream about the shoals of herring

O we left the homegrounds in the month of June
And to Canny Shiels we soon were bearing
With a hundred cran of silver darlings
That we'd taken from the shoals of herring

Now you're up on deck, you're a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you're searching for the shoals of herring

In the stormy seas and the living gales
Just to earn your daily bread you're daring
From the Dover Straits to the Faroe Islands
As you're following the shoals of herring

O I earned my keep and I paid my way
And I earned the gear that I was wearing
Sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes
We were sailing after shoals of herring
I found this video of Liam and Tommy singing "Shoals of Herring" in February of 1977 at the National Stadium in Dublin. Obviously the boys sang this often; listen to the audience singing along!

And with that I bid a fond farewell to Liam Clancy, the last living member of a legend. With his passing an era has truly ended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cool Drink of Water

SONG: Cool Drink of Water
BY: Tommy Johnson
PERFORMED BY: Tommy Johnson

APPEARS ON: Tommy Johnson: Complete Recorded Works 1928-1929 (Document); Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)

If someone wanted to create a fictional blues legend, it would be hard to improve on the real life legend of Tommy Johnson—the “other” & lesser-known blues playing Johnson from the Delta region. In fact, Tommy Johnson shares much with Robert Johnson (the two were not related); in both cases, there’s was a story circulating that each had sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to master the blues—however, while we don’t know for sure whether Robert Johnson was behind this story about himself, we do know that Tommy Johnson played an active role in telling how he had come to mastery of the blues. Both were exceptional guitar players & singers—Tommy Johnson was known to play the guitar behind his back, behind his head, & toss the guitar in the air mid-song—all this happening roughly 40 years before the heyday of Jimi Hendrix; of course, Charlie Patton, who was Tommy Johnson’s contemporary, also engaged in this sort of showmanship. The most important thing is that—showmanship aside—Johnson could really play.

His voice was also remarkable. For my money, he had the most compelling falsetto in old-time blues—a sound that brings to mind the great “high lonesome” voices of Appalachian music, but in a much different setting. The effect is similar, however—that tingling sense of existential despair that rings true whether it’s sung by a white banjoist from the mountains—Roscoe Holcomb, for instance—or the African-American man from the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson’s lyrics are often quite interesting in themselves, even above his ability to put them across vocally, & you could make an argument for today’s song, “Cool Drink of Water” having perhaps his most compelling lyrics. A song of betrayal & displacement that leaves a lot of gaps for the imagination, it begins with the enigmatic & chilling statement “I asked for water, & she gave me gasoline.” The song goes on to describe how the singer is trying to get back home by “riding the blinds.” For those who don’t know, this meant catching a (free) ride on a train by riding on the front platform of a passenger car’s baggage car. The fact that baggage was piled up against the door meant that the seat was relatively secure, because the door wouldn’t be opened. Still, the rider was vulnerable to a shower of water or hot coals if the fireman decided to dislodge him—you can read about this & other ways to catch a train hobo-style here on the Hobohemia page. The fact is that while riding the blinds was safer than riding the top or riding the rods, there is no way to ride with much real safety on the outside of a fast-moving train!

Johnson only recorded 16 songs—a real shame, because he never recorded after 1929, tho he lived until 1956. Apparently, he believed (erroneously of course) that he had signed away his right to record. Sadly, he was also a severe alcoholic. He wrote the song “Canned Heat” about drinking Sterno, & there is every reason to believe this is autobiographical.

The sound quality on Johnson’s recordings isn’t what we might wish, but the power of his playing & singing does come thru. Oh yes, & that is mandolin you hear in the background, played by Charlie McCoy; the mandolin is a much under-rated blues instrument!

Rory Block also does a fine cover of this on her great Gone Woman Blues album; Block’s voice has a spectacular range & she’s really able to do justice to Johnson’s music. Of course her amazing guitar playing helps too! She does change the line “this train ain’t none of mine” to “this train don’t run no more”—unfortunately, an appropriate revision in the contemporary U.S.

Hope you enjoy the song.

Cool Drink of Water

I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline
I asked for water, she gave me gasoline
I asked for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord

I went to the depot, looked up on the board
I looked all over, "How long has this east bound train been gone?
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Lord, I asked the conductor, "Could I ride these blinds?"
(Want to know, can a broke man ride the blinds)
"Son, buy your ticket, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"

"Son, buy your ticket, train ain't none of mine"
"Son, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"
Lord, Lordy, Lord
"Train ain't none of mine"


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Poor Boy Blues

SONG: Poor Boy Blues

BY: traditional, but this version is particular to Ramblin’ Thomas

PERFORMED BY: Ramblin’ Thomas

APPEARS ON: Ramblin’ Thomas & the Dallas Blues Singers: 1928-1932 (Document); The Anthology of American Folk Music, vol.3, “Songs” (Smithsonian Folkways)

There’s a different sense of narrative in much of old-time music, a narrative that’s built on stock phrases & repetition. When we think of the lyrics to old time songs, & particularly old country blues, we’re struck by the preponderance of so-called “floating lyrics”—lyrics that appear in many songs: “the sun will shine in my back door someday”; “the good book it tells you, you’re gonna reap just what you sow”; “my mind was wandering like the wild geese in the west”—a list could go on for several pages. But what does the use of these recurring phrases tell us about blues lyrics?

For me, the “floating lyrics” bring up two points. First, blues is fundamentally improvisational, & this applies to the lyrics as well as to the music. We know that the old blues players were known to extemporize lyrics in the same way the calypsonian singers did. The composition method was essentially oral, not written, & so these recurrent phrases allowed the singer to continue his song in much the way that epic poets would use epithets like “wine-dark sea” or “rosy fingered dawn” in order to continue the narrative flow.

Second, the blues are “universal”—while they are filled with intense personal feeling, there is a sense that the singer is also everyman; the emotional content of these songs is profound because it isn’t circumscribed by individual biography; & the use of these phrases underlines its universal nature.

One such phrase is the simple but poignant “poor boy long ways from home.” In fact, this phrase hasn’t simply recurred in songs, but also in the titles of several distinct blues. The song we’re considering today is “Poor Boy Blues” by Ramblin’ Willard Thomas, but there are also songs called “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” by Barbecue Bob, Bukka White, Gus Cannon, & RL Burnside, among others. The links in the previous sentence will take you to YouTube videos of each song. You can also check out the Bukka White version on my Robert Frost’s Banjo blog right here in today’s post.

I’ve always found Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” to be incredibly moving. It’s a stark song: the slide guitar accompaniment is spare, & the lyrics leave gaps that are filled with questions. Why is the singer in Texas now, & why must he “work or leave,” after he lived as he pleased in Louisiana? Why doesn’t he like land? Other “Poor Boy” songs, such as Gus Cannon’s & Bukka White’s versions, it’s clear that the singer is in prison—in White’s case, on a prison farm. I’m not sure that really fits these lyrics—for instance, the “work or leave” line. Thomas’ “poor boy” seems to be more in the position of an itinerant worker who has to leave home to find his livelihood. But beyond these specific considerations, the song describes a deep homesickness & loneliness, the sense of being “a stranger in a strange land” that many will recognize in their own hearts.

Not much is known about the singer Ramblin’ Thomas. He did record some sides for Paramount in the 1920s, & he was known to be a peripatetic sort, so he came by his nickname honestly, & the fact that he was itinerant no doubt informed the great feeling he brings to this song. You can read more about his biography at the Allmusic site. Here are the lyrics, & you can enjoy the song in the video below!

Poor Boy Blues

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

I was down in Louisiana, doing as I please,
Now I'm in Texas I got to work or leave.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

If your home's in Louisiana, what you doing over here?
Say my home ain't in Texas and I sure don't care.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

I don't care if the boat don't never land,
I'd like to stay on water as long as any man.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

And my boat come a rockin', just like a drunkard man,
And my home's on the water and I sure don't like land.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth : They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)

SONG They Reminisce Over You

WRITTEN BY Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Tom Scott

PERFORMED BY Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

APPEARS ON Mecca and the Soul Brother

Most people have their lives shaped by a combination of support, adversity, and change. The hip hop generation has been dealing with some serious issues at a younger age than we should have. We deal with the loss of our peers for foolish reasons. We got to live through and experience the community changing right before our eye and watched friends and family members struggle. We also understand the value of having support and appreciation for the people that helped us along the way. Every now and then you have to reminisce and pay respects to the good people in our lives in the past and the present and show them how much we care.

There is no hip hop song that embodies this feeling more than “They Reminisce (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth. It was recorded on their album Mecca and The Soul Brother in 1992. This is one of the five best hip hop songs ever and shows the power of the genre when it’s done correctly. The song is named after Troy ‘Trouble T Roy’ Dixon who was a member of Heavy D and the Boyz. He died in an accident while they were on tour in 1990. The instrumental track produced by Pete Rock features a horn and bass line sample by a song called “Today” by Tom Scott. The horn sample begins the song and sets the vibe. CL Smooth raps three verses in this song. The first one is about his mother and how she overcame the struggles of being a teenage mom. The second is about his grandfather who was his father figure growing up. The third voice is dedicated to their friend Troy that the song is named after. The lyrics are poetic, intricate and yet easy to follow. He does an excellent job of painting a portrait of the people in the song. It’s too bad this group got caught up in the beginning of the G-Funk gangster rap explosion and their positivity couldn’t sustain and give them a more accomplished career. I hope it’s a consolation for them that after 17 years since this song was released there hasn’t been a hip hop song any better. There have been some as good but not better.

I didn’t know much about Trouble T. Roy when he was alive other than he danced with Heavy D. If someone is going to dedicate a song to your memory this is how it should be. We should all strive to leave a positive memory to the people in our lives. If there is anyone listening to this song for the first time after reading this blog I hope it brings a positive memory of someone in your life like it does for me.


Verse One:


I reminisce for a spell, or shall I say think back
22 years ago to keep it on track
The birth of a child on the 8th of October
A toast but my granddaddy came sober
Countin all the fingers and the toes
Now I suppose, you hope the little black boy grows, huh
18 years younger than my mama
But I really got beatings cause the girl loved drama
In single parenthood there I stood
By the time she was 21, had another one
This one's a girl, let's name her Pam
Same father as the first but you don't give a damn
Irresponsible, plain not thinking
Papa said chill but the brother keep winking
Still he won't down you or tear out your hide
On your side while the baby maker slide
But mama got wise to the game
The youngest of five kids, hon here it is
After 10 years without no spouse
Momma's gettin married in the house
Listen, positive over negative for the women and master
Mother Queen's risin a chapter
Deja vu, tell you what I'm gonna do
When they reminisce over you, my God

Verse Two:


When I date back I recall a man off the family tree
My right hand Poppa Doc I see
Took me from a boy to a man so I always had a father
When my biological didn't bother
Taking care of this so who am I to bicker
Not a bad ticker but I'm clocking pop's liver
But you can never say that his life is through
5 kids at 21 believe he got a right too
Here we go while I check the scene
With the Portugese lover at the age of 14
The same age, front page, no fuss
But I bet you all your dough, they live longer than us
Never been senile, that's where you're wrong
But give the man a taste and he's gone
Noddin off, sleep to a jazz tune
I can hear his head banging on the wall in the next room
I get the pillow and hope I don't wake him
For this man do cuss, hear it all in verbatim
Telling me how to raise my boy unless he's taking over
I said pop maybe when you're older
We laughed all night about the hookers at the party
My old man standing yelling good God, almighty
Use your condom, take sips of the brew
When they reminisce over you, for real

Verse Three:


I reminisce so you never forget this
The days of wayback, so many bear witness the fitness
Take the first letter out of each word in this joint
Listen close as I prove my point
T to the R-uh-O-Y, how did you and I meet?
In front of Big Lou's, fighting in the street
But only you saw what took many time to see
I dedicate this to you for believing in me
Rain or shine, yes in any weather
My grandmom Pam holds the family together
My Uncle Doc's the greatest better yet the latest
If we're talking about a car, Uncle Sterling got the latest
I strive to be live 'cause I got no choice
And run my own business like my Aunt Joyce
So Pete Rock hit me, nuff respect due
When they reminisce over you, listen

[Pete Rock]

Listen, just listen
To the funky song as I rock on
And that's word is bond
I'm not playin
Everybody, just coolin
This song we dedicate
To the one and only
Never be another
he was my brother
Trouble T-Roy
It's like that y'all
And you don't stop
Pete Rock and CL Smooth for '92
And we out, later

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Beatles: Let It Be

SONG Let It Be

WRITTEN BY John Lennon and Paul McCartney


APPEARS ON Let It Be (1970); Past Masters, Vol. 2 (1988) Let It Be...Naked (2003)

John Lennon never liked "Let It Be," the Beatles great song of consolation. He said that he couldn't hear the Beatles in it and guessed that Paul McCartney wanted to write a version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which he didn't intend as a compliment. Lennon was partly right about his first contention and all wrong about the second: McCartney wrote "Let It Be" before "Bridge."

"Let It Be" is an atypical Beatles song, in that it is constructed around the introductory piano chords instead of the guitar chords that informed most of their music. But McCartney knew what he was doing: The piano lends a degree of intimacy that he probably couldn't have found in a guitar. Billy Preston's organ enters, quietly at first, to add a gospel element, then Ringo Starr's drums slowly add rock to the mixture. George Harrison adds an anthemic guitar solo and suddenly we do have a Beatles song: A sampling of styles and influences that cohere into an organic whole, perfectly summoning forth the spirit of maternal warmth and consolation at the heart of the song.

And that's what "Let It Be" is about: As troubles mount, set them aside and take perspective. How bad are they, really?

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom: let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom: let it be

And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer: let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer: let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom: let it be

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow: let it be
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom: let it be

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom: let it be

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Smiling Faces Sometimes

SONG Smiling Faces

WRITTEN BY Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

PERFORMED BY The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth

APPEARS ON Sky’s the Limit (1971), The Undisputed Truth (1971)

I thought about this song after watching some of the discussion on health care and the vote on Senator Baucus’ version of the reform bill on Tuesday. For the last few weeks I backed away from most of the coverage because the rhetoric got a little over the top for me but I have been keeping track of what’s going on. It appears to me that there has been a lot of lies and misinformation from every side designed to throw off the American public from the real issues. The worst part about that is that it’s been done by the people of their own political party. Some Republicans tell their supporters they are fighting for their civil liberties and freedoms and at the same time lobbyists for insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies line their pockets and dictate their actions. Some Democrats are doing the exact same thing except they have to fool their constituents by introducing bills for reform that are missing the key elements to keeping insurance companies honest. In the end we will have both groups together shaking hands on Capital Hill in harmony because big business got what they wanted.

That leads me to the song “Smiling Faces”. It was original recorded by The Temptations in 1971 and then by the Undisputed Truth Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1971(I know most of the songs I write about were recorded before I was born but I can’t help it), Smiling Faces speaks about how some people can appear to be your friend and have your best interest at heart but really have the wrong intentions. I’m sure when Whitfield and Strong wrote the song they were thinking about it from a more personal angle. Fortunately for me I don’t have personal references to go on for this song. In a broader sense I can relate well to the message in the song. Living in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina has opened my eyes and taught me valuable lessons about how some people can appear to be supportive and understanding of your needs and issues one minute and then turn around and plot ways to take advantage of your vulnerable state the next. You have to be careful not to judge too quickly and paint anyone in a positive or negative light.

The Temptations version is over 11 minutes long and features Eddie Kendricks on lead vocals. It was going to be edited down for a single release but he left the group before that could happen. This may be the one instance where I prefer another version of a song over a Temptations’ version because I personally prefer the Undisputed Truth’s version. This song was their shining moment and their only top 40 hit. Both versions sound similar but you can tell the difference in them. Norman Whitfield made a good living recording the same song with different artists at Motown. He wrote “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” that was recorded by The Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and The Pips. He also wrote “War” that was recorded by The Temptations and Edwin Starr. I guess if you have a hit then you need to get everything you can out of it.

Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don't tell the truth uh
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

The truth is in the eyes
Cause the eyes don't lie, amen
Remember a smile is just
A frown turned upside down
My friend let me tell you
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don't tell the truth, uh
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof
Beware, beware of the handshake
That hides the snake
I'm telling you beware
Beware of the pat on the back
It just might hold you back
Jealousy (jealousy)
Misery (misery)

I tell you, you can't see behind smiling faces
Smiling faces sometimes they don't tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don't tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof
(Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes)
(Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes)
I'm telling you beware, beware of the handshake
That hides the snake
Listen to me now, beware
Beware of that pat on the back
It just might hold you back
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don't tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

Your enemy won't do you no harm
Cause you'll know where he's coming from
Don't let the handshake and the smile fool ya
Take my advice I'm only try' to school ya

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Richard Thompson: Keep Your Distance

SONG Keep Your Distance

WRITTEN BY Richard Thompson

PERFORMED BY Richard Thompson

APPEARS ON Rumor and Sigh (1991); Watching the Dark (1993)

Richard Thompson's triple-threat combination of literate songwriting, expert guitar playing, and impassioned singing have made him one of rock's most respected performers. Though his melodies are rooted in English folk music, Thompson's lyrics often reflect modern conflicts and existentialist dilemmas. Other songs, such as his masterpiece "From Galway to Graceland," grace us with exquisite simplicity and tenderness.

A great breakup song, "Keep Your Distance" combines highly literate lyrics ("sweeping out the footprints where I strayed") with terrific folk-rock hooks to look back on relationship that imploded under the pressures of its own intensity. The singer fears any contact with a former lover because involvement with that person cost both of them "our souls, our lives," far too great a price in Thompson's estimation. Love, after all, should lead to one's best self, not consign it to oblivion ("what can I do but fall").

But what of the enigmatic final line: "With us it must be all or none at all." While the thrust of the song leads to the conclusion that "none at all" is preferable, Thompson remains tempted and intrigued by the possibilities of "all." Even though he knows that that is a "desperate game," the chance that he might succumb to its lures are enough to warn his lover to "keep your distance." Because in the end, he knows that -- if she doesn't -- he will fall. Which raises the question: Why is the onus on her to keep distance between them? Maybe because he knows that he's incapable of doing so on his own.

If I cross your path again
Who know where? Who knows when?
On some morning without number
On some highway without end
Don't grasp my hand and say
"Fate has brought you here today"
Fate is only fooling with us, friend

Keep your distance, oh, keep your distance
When I feel you close to me what can I do but fall?
Keep your distance, keep your distance
With us it must be all or none at all

It's a desperate game we play
Throw our souls, our lives, away
Wounds that can't be mended
And debts that can't be paid
Oh I played and I got stung
Now I'm biting back my tongue
And sweeping out the footprints where I strayed

Keep your distance, oh, keep your distance
When I feel you close to me what can I do but fall?
Keep your distance, keep your distance
With us it must be all or none at all

Keep your distance, oh, keep your distance
When I feel you close to me what can I do but fall?
Keep your distance, keep your distance
With us it must be all or none at all
With us it must be all or none at all
With us it must be all or none at all

Note: That's Shawn Colvin on backing vocals and rhythm guitar. Also, the hum fades out as soon as the music starts.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Louis Armstrong, Eva Cassidy - "What a Wonderful World"

SONG What a Wonderful World

WRITTEN BY Bob Thiele and David Weiss

PERFORMED BY Louis Armstrong, Eva Cassidy

APPEARS ON Louis Armstrong - What a Wonderful World (1968); Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley (1996)

This is one of my favorite songs, but although I like the original Louis Armstrong version, the one that has a special place in my heart is the version by Eva Cassidy. We'll get to that in due time, though. Let's talk about the song itself first, though.

Bob Thiele was a record producer who produced recordings for John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Archie Shepp, and the like when he was head of Impulse! Records. In 1968 he and veteran songwriter George David Weiss wrote this song for Louis Armstrong for a project Thiele and Armstrong were working on. 1968 (for those of you who weren't around yet then) was a pretty tumultuous year; both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in that year, and protest demonstrations pressing the issues those two were famous for - civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. Satchmo wanted a song that would promote positive feelings in the midst of all this strife, and Thiele and Weiss came up with just the right song. It has a hopeful, optimistic tone with regard to the future, with reference to babies being born into the world and having much to look forward to. Satch loved it.

Unfortunately, ABC Records, to whom Armstrong was under contract, didn't like it. In fact, Thiele had to lock ABC sales executive Larry Newton out of the recording session because Newton hated the song and wanted to abort the session. Needless to say, ABC didn't promote the record (first released as a single), and at first it didn't get much play in the US. But it took off in the United Kingdom, where it hit #1 on the singles chart and was the biggest-selling single of 1968.

ABC Records' European distributor EMI forced ABC Records to put out a What a Wonderful World album in 1968, but again, it flopped in the US because it wasn't promoted, while it did well in the UK. Despite ABC's dislike of the song, it gained a measure of popularity because Armstrong sang it every opportunity he got, especially on TV appearances. People loved the song, and loved Satchmo singing it. After his death in 1971 it was rereleased, and from that point on it became a hit and the much-loved standard we've all listened to. It especially became attached to Christmas for some reason; I think Satch sang it on one of Perry Como's Christmas specials, and the image stuck.

So what was all the fuss about with Larry Newton and the other bigwigs at ABC Records? Here are the lyrics; maybe you can figure it out!

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them blue, for me and you.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky,
Also the faces of people going by.
I see friends shaking hands, say how do you do?
They're really saying, I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow,
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself... what a wonderful world.

Yes I think to myself... what a wonderful world.
Still confused? Yeah, me too! Unless ABC thought it was too sappy for the likes of the great Louis Armstrong. Unless they just didn't like the message. Hmmmm... Anyhow, here's the original recording of "What a Wonderful World" by Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.

And now to my favorite version. If you've been reading this blog for a while now, you've seen mr write about Eva Cassidy before. She had the voice of an angel, great chops on both guitar and piano, and an exquisite, finely tuned sense of musical taste. And she was taken from us far too soon: melanoma killed her in November of 1996. You can read more about her in my post about "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", of which Eva did the most haunting arrangement, and which became her signature tune.

Today I uploaded a slideshow video I'd been working on for a while to YouTube. It's called "Wonderful World", and it consists of nature shots taken in and around Newport, RI, and backed by Eva Cassidy's studio version of "What a Wonderful World" (you can check it out here, if you like). It got me to thinking about the song itself, and inspired me to write this post. It also got me to looking for my favorite video of Eva performing this song live at Blues Alley in January of 1996. Found it!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Marianne Faithfull / Waylon Jennings - "Dreaming My Dreams With You"

SONG Dreaming My Dreams With You

WRITTEN BY Allen Reynolds

PERFORMED BY Marianne Faithfull; Waylon Jennings; Cowboy Junkies; ... amongst many others.

APPEARS ON "Faithless" (1978); "Dreaming My Dreams With You" (2001); "Trinity Sessions" (1988); ... amongst many others.

"Dreaming My Dreams With You" is a gorgeous song written by singer-songwriter Allen Reynolds who, although having written some fine songs, is probably more famous for his production work with artists of very varied quality! Reynolds is perhaps best known for producing nigh on every Garth Brooks LP. However, he's also produced albums for artists of far better quality such as, amongst others, Kathy Mattea, Hal Ketchum, Crystal Gayle and Emmylou Harris.

An array of artists have covered this classic. Most of them very badly! I was looking for our favourite version - the beautiful fragile Cowboy Junkies version from the mighty "Trinity Sessions" LP - but couldn't find a vid. So instead here's Waylon's decent interpretation of the song (from the 2001 album of the same name) and, perhaps even better, the lovely version by Marianne Faithfull (about whom the song could easily have been written!) from her excellent 1978 comeback album "Faithless".

"Dreaming My Dreams With You" is a complex, beautiful, bijou song of heart-wrenching regret and loneliness, but also too a song affirming the power of love, even in wretched circumstance.

It's a tale of anguished separation from a special loved one lost through the protagonist's unstated weakness. It's a recurring weakness from which he hopes "that I've learned this time."

The haunting refrain of "I'll always miss dreaming my dreams with you" highlights the essence of his longing for those long lost moments of true love. He dreams that the pain will eventually end and that "Someday I'll get over you."

Despite this agony, he still strongly believes in, and affirms, the concept of love ("I won't let it change me. Not if I can. I'd rather believe in love.") However, it may be an idyllic, perhaps over-idealised, concept of love to which he aspires ("I hope that I find what I'm reaching for. The way that it is in my mind.") And that may be his real tragedy.

(Original version at Stupid&Contagious)

I hope that I won't be that wrong anymore
I hope that I've learned this time
I hope that I find what I'm reaching for
The way that it is in my mind

Someday I'll get over you
I'll live to see it all through
But I'll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

I won't let it change me
Not if I can
I'd rather believe in love
And give it away
As much as I can
To those that I'm fondest of

Someday I'll get over you
I'll live to see it all through
But I'll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

Someday I'll get over you
I'll live to see it all through
But I'll always miss
Dreaming my dreams with you

by Allen Reynolds

Waylon Jennings - "Dreaming My Dreams With You"

Marianne Faithfull - "Dreaming My Dreams With You"

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Devil Got My Woman

SONG: Devil Got My Woman

WRITTEN BY: Skip James

PERFORMED BY: Skip James—also Rory Block, Beck, John Cephas et al.

APPEARS ON: Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo), Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder), etc.

The old bl
ues often isn’t “easy” music—if we listen to the lyrics of many of these tunes, we encounter violence, both random & that spurred by powerful negative emotions, particularly sexual jealousy, & often violence against women—this can arise in songs by even relatively affable singers such as Mississippi John Hurt; while his later version of the song “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is quite mild, his 1926 version is quite violent. Singers such as Robert Johnson seem to celebrate murder & beating (“32-20 Blues” & “Me & the Devil”) & Skip James—the great bluesman we’re considering here today—wrote the musically great but lyrically disturbing song “Crow Jane,” in which the singer apparently shots Crow Jane simply because she held her “head up high.” Those of us who like to listen to traditional music really are bound (my opinion) to come to terms with this; & those, like myself, who play & perform this music have to come to terms with it in different & perhaps more exacting ways.

Skip James was almost certainly a musical genius, if the term means anything at all. His fingerstyle blues—quite a bit different in technique from contemporaries such as Robert Johnson & Son House from the same Mississippi Delta region—involved guitar playing of a very high order. It’s been said that his 1930s version of “I’m So Glad” (musically quite different from Cream’s later cover) is as fine a piece of fingerstyle guitar as you can hear. In some cases—as in the song under consideration, “Devil Got My Woman”—James used an innovative tuning which made the guitar’s unfretted strings play an E minor chord; this tuning is sometimes called “Bentonia tuning” after James’ hometown, or “Cross Tuning,” a term, as I understand, coined by James himself. A lot of people write about this tune as accentuating the “minor” or mournful character of the songs, & there’s certainly truth in this. On the other hand—& to be technical for a moment—the difference between a major & minor chord is one tone—the third tone of a given scale. So for instance an E major chord contains the notes E, G# & B; an E minor chord contains the notes E, G natural & B. Much of blues playing involves a play between those two forms of the third tone—in E, for instance, a rocking back & forth between G# & G natural. This produces a very characteristic sound. However, if you look at James’ Cross Tuning, you’ll notice that the G natural appears on an open string only once: the tuning goes E, B, E, G, B, E. Because of this, the guitar player is able to limit the use of the third tone, making the song in a sense more eerie, because for stretches of time it doesn’t resolve to either major or minor, but exists in a sort of nether world between.

But what about the lyrical material? “Devil Got My Woman” is a landscape of betrayal—the woman betrays the singer, the singer betrays his friend, & at least in some sense, the friend also betrays the singer. This song is generally considered to be inspired by James’ own broken marriage. However, the motivations behind all these betrayals aren’t understood in terms of human impulses: sexual desire, anger, disappointment, jealousy. They are explicitly understood in a frame of reference of demonic possession. James himself said:

You can lay down happy at night, you and your companion... and in harmony. Everything goin' well. Satan'll creep in the house overnight... next mornin' you cannot get a good word out of her. Why? Because Satan has got the bill of sale over her. He done crept in overnight...

James was, like Son House, a mass of contradictions when it came to religion. He was an ordained Baptist preacher who reportedly believed in Voodoo practices, & also was reputed to be a compulsive womanizer & gambler. He claimed to always carry a gun, & said, “I never draw a gun unless I pull the trigger.” These contradictions certainly come out in his music. For a compelling account of James, you might look at The Haunting of Skip James on the Fascinating People blog.

There are two versions of this song in circulation—one is James’ 1930s version, which only contains three verses, & I must say I find the condensed form very effective. The other version is typified by John Cephas’ cover in the video below; while Cephas is a very gifted singer & guitar player, I find this version a bit more unfocused. I’d also commend Rory Block’s version (as “Devil Got My Man”). Ms Block is a favorite artist of mine—someone who has the rare gift of being able to play old-time blues very close to the source & yet at the same time make the music seem completely her own.

Finally—& to return at last to my original point—I’m aware that this song is sometimes considered misogynist for the line “I’d rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man.” Comparing this with “Crow Jane,” for example (you can see the lyrics for "Crow Jane" here)—a song I can appreciate musically but wouldn’t perform—it seems that the landscape is much more complicated, involving demonically-inspired betrayal, & a sense that relationships exist in a place where human agency only has a limited influence.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of these songs along these lines.

Devil Got My Woman

I'd rather be the devil, to be that woman’s man
I'd rather be the devil, to be that woman’s man
Aw, nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind
Was nothin' but the devil, changed my baby's mind

I laid down last night, laid down last night
I laid down last night, tried to take my rest
My mind got to ramblin', like a wild geese
From the west, from the west

The woman I love, woman that I loved
Woman I loved, took her from my best friend
But he got lucky, stoled her back again
And he got lucky, stoled her back again

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hank Williams: Cool Water

SONG Cool Water


PERFORMED BY Hank Williams

APPEARS ON Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings (2009)

Hank Williams knew a terrible secret, and he revealed it in his songs and performances. He knew that humans have a core of fear where love is a fleeting and treacherous thing, where redemption lies in death, and where loneliness and isolation is the human fate. His performance of "Cool Water," Bob Nolan's campfire classic about a man and a mirage,, fearlessly explores this core, leading us on the harrowing journey that ultimately claimed Williams' life.

Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, a fiddle, and the occasional whisper of a pedal steel guitar, Hank’s deliberate phrasing summons a paradoxical sense of inevitability. It’s a bravura performance, arguably Williams’ finest vocal. That a simple ballad like "Cool Water" can evoke this illuminates the mysterious alchemy that occurs when a great artist perceives something in a song that no one else -- not even the song's writer -- senses.

For Williams turns “Cool Water” into a Conradian odyssey, a tale of a parched soul pleading for deliverance only to find that redemption is a mirage. Through this performance, Williams reveals his ultimate fear: That the journey is not the reward, but just another part of the horror. So, while he expresses faith that "He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water," it's not entirely clear that he believes what he's saying. Williams drives this point home in the final verse, where he discloses that what he really desires is release from the "quest for water." His fear -- and ours -- is that there is no water, merely an endless spiritual search that leads only to disillusion. Better, he thinks, to be released from the search than to discover that it is all a mirage.

All day I face the barren waste without a taste of water
Cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water
Cool water

The nights are cool and I'm a fool, each star's a pool of water
Cool water
But with the dawn I'll wake and yawn and carry on to water
Cool water

Keep a-movin' Dan
Don't you listen to him Dan
He's a devil not a man
And he spreads the burning sand with water
Dan can't you see
That big green tree
Where the water's runnin' free
And it's waiting there for me and you
Cool water

The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water
Cool water
And way up there He'll hear our prayer and show us where there's water
Cool water

Dan's feet are sore, he yearning for just one thing more than water
Cool water
Like me, I guess, he'd like to rest where there's no quest for water
Cool water
Here's a link to a video of Hank's brilliant performance of "Cool Water." It's blurry and the synching is off, but his desperation comes through anyway. It's that powerful a performance.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Song For You

SONG Song For You

WRITTEN BY Leon Russell

PERFORMED BY Donny Hathaway, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell

APPEARS ON Donny Hathaway (1972); Leon Russell (1972); Shotgun Willie (1973)

Leon Russell's classic "Song For You" takes as its starting point a tradition probably as old as songwriting itself: The troubadour seducing a estranged lover by professing everlasting love while asking his lover forgiveness for his flaws. I want to be what you want me to be, he sings, and I've learned so much from you. But I'll never be perfect, much less as perfect as you. Isn't it enough that "There's no one more important to me?" Isn't it enough that when I'm singing to "ten thousand people" I'm really singing to you? Because while I may be flawed, my love isn't: "I love you in a place where there is no space or time."

"Song For You" also demonstrates the power of a great song (not to mention seduction and love) to cross genres. It's hard to choose between Donny Hathaway's deeply soulful rendition and the direct intimacy of Willie Nelson's country-folk version. Hathaway's voice swoops and soars, demanding attention and inviting his lover to be one with him. Nelson's wistful country baritone is more of a gruff filter, tuning out the noise of the "ten thousand people watching" so that in the end there are only the two lovers. Either way, the message of "Song For You" -- that most quiet and intimate of songs -- comes through loud and clear.

I've been so many places in my life and time
I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhyme
I've acted out my love in stages
With ten thousand people watching
We're alone now and I'm singing this song for you

I know your image of me is what I hope to be
I've treated you unkindly but darlin' can't you see?
There's no one more important to me
Darlin' can't you please see through me?
'Cause we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you

You taught me precious secrets of the truth, withholding nothing
You were out front and I was hiding
But now I'm so much better
And if my words don't come together
Listen to the melody 'cause my love is in there hiding

I love you in a place where there is no space or time
I love you for my life 'cause you are a friend of mine
And when my life is over
Remember when we were together
We were alone and I was singing this song for you
We were alone and I was singing this song for you

A Song For You (Live @ The Troubador, Los Angeles, CA) - Donny Hathaway

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Love You More Than You`ll Ever Know

I Love You
More Than You'll Ever Know


PERFORMED BY: Blood Sweat and Tears, Donny Hathaway

APPEARS ON: Child is Father to the Man,
Extension of a Man

Writing for this blog has proven to be very educational. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about These Eyes by The Guess Who and how all my life I had been listening to the version of that song by Junior Walker not knowing it was a remake. Well, it just happened again with one of my favorite songs. I was coming up with the words to describe this song and I decided to look up the lyrics while I thought about it. I typed in the words “I Love you more than you’ll ever know” and waited to see Donny Hathaway’s name. I looked at the screen and was shocked to see the name Blood Sweat and Tears. I was positive Donny Hathaway wrote this song and if I went on a music trivia show I would have been eliminated on this question. It turns out I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know was originally performed by Blood Sweat and Tears and written by Al Kooper. It was released on their debut album Child Is Father to the Man in 1968. I have to admit that the original version is very impressive for a band I never heard of. I am not sure about Al Kooper's singing but the band plays the hell out of the music.

The reason why I love the song so much is because it tells a story from the standpoint of a regular man trying to do anything he can to keep the woman he loves. Sometimes the things you do work out and sometimes they don’t but you have to try what you can to make her happy. In this modern day of rhythm and blues it seems songs get attention that go against this theory. It’s all full of fantasy and stories about trips to islands, nice cars and expensive jewelry. There are some real singers still out there but a lot of the make believe images get attention. This song represents what a man really feels inside when he loves someone with real life circumstances. I don’t want to paint all current songs with a broad brush but it’s been a long time since I heard a love song on the radio with lyrics like.

When I wasn’t making much money
You know where my paycheck went
You know I brought it home to you baby
And I never spent a red cent.

That sounds more like real life in this economy. You have to give credit to Al Kooper for coming up with the song and the lyrics but Donny Hathaway sings these lyrics with so much feeling that you can imagine him just walking in the studio without anything written down and singing this straight from his heart. I love Donny Hathaway. He had that special gift in his voice that allows you to feel every emotion of the song. Although he’s been deceased since 1979 he’s still on my concert wish list. If I had found out he went in the studio the same night his woman left to sing this song I would have believed it. Maybe that’s why so many people think he wrote it. It would have been really cool to hear him sing it with the original band because those guys can play.

If I ever leave you can say I told you so
And if I ever hurt you ..... you know I hurt myself as well

Is that any way for a man to carry on
Do you think I want my loved one gone
Said I love you
More than you'll ever know
More than you'll ever know

When I wasn't making much money
You know where my paycheck went
You know I brought it home to you baby
And I never spent a red cent

Is that any way for a man to carry on
Do you think I want my loved one gone
Said I love you
More than you'll ever know
More than you'll ever know

Now listen to this
I'm not trying to be
Just any kind of man
No I ain't
I'm just trying to be somebody
You can love, trust and understand
I know, I know, I know that I can be
A part of you that no one else could see
But I gotta hear you say
I got to hear you say
It's alright
I'm only flesh and blood
But I can be anything that you demand
I can be King of everything
Or just a tiny grain of sand
Now tell me

Is that anyway for a man to carry on
Do you think that I want my loved one gone
I love you
More than you'll ever know
I said I love you
I love you
I love you
Don't want nobody else but you.....

Friday, September 25, 2009

Big Star: Nighttime

SONG: Nighttime

WRITTEN BY: Alex Chilton


APPEARS ON: Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino); Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers (Rykodisc)

Today’s post is rather a shift from my usual run of blues &
old-time music—it involves a song that really possessed me twenty plus years ago, & an album that seemed to open into a strange, disturbing & fascinating world. The album: Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers; the song: “Nighttime.”

For those of you who don’t know, Big Star was a memphis quartet of the early to mid 1970s, fronted by Alex Chilton & Chris Bell as vocalist guitarists & with Andy Hummel on bass & Jody Stephens on drums. Chilton had already had a taste of stardom when at age 16 he & his bandmates in the Box Tops had scored a number one record with “The Letter.” The experience was not a positive one for Chilton, as it appears—at a young age he grew mistrustful of the music industry’s machinations & marketing & control over artists.

Bell & Chilton were a sort of southern underground Lennon & McCartney; as Robert Gordon writes in the book accompanying Rhino’s hot off the presses box set: “The two bandleaders complemented each other. Bell liked softer, rounder curves, & Chilton was fond of the sharp edge.” With Bell & Chilton collaborating, Big Star recorded the critically-acclaimed
but commercial train wreck, #1 Record, & then with Bell mostly out of the band, they released Radio City, which was again met with critical enthusiasm & disappointing sales. In the fall of 1974, Chilton & Stephens were the only remaining band members, & they went into Ardent Studios in Memphis to work on a new project. This is what later became known as Big Star’s 3rd: Sister Lovers (so called because Chilton & Stephens were dating sisters at the time). The album was considered too dark & eccentric to find a distributor, & wasn’t released until 1978 on PVC—that version contained 14 tracks. Rykodisc later released a 19 track version in the early 90s—by this time such alt rock luminaries as R.E.M. & the Replacements were acknowledging the deep influence of Chilton & Big Star, & the band’s work finally had a defined commercial niche.

I was brought back to Big Star’s music by the (very) recent release of Rhino’s box set, Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (co-produced by our friend Cheryl Pawelski, who described the project as a labor of love). For a full review of that, please check out my post today on my Robert Frost’s Banjo blog. Here, I’m focusing on the song “Nighttime.”

When I first heard the demo version of “Nighttime” on disc two of the four disc box set, I was startled to find that Chilton didn’t sing the rather disturbing fourth & fifth verses (see the lyrics below). The demo is an incredibly sweet song—anticipatory of “going out” in all senses of the phrase, & with the air of new love saturating the sound. It’s just Chilton accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Also, tho I didn’t check this in any mechanical way, I believe the underlying tempo of the demo is slightly quicker than that of the released version.

So what happens between the demo & the release? All the sudden, this sweet love song seems to turn so very dark; in the fifth verse, Chilton sings:

Get me out of here
Get me out of here
I hate it here
Get me out of here

In many ways this twist incapsulates so much of what fascinates me about Big Star’s 3rd; there’s the sweet string-enhanced beauty of songs like “Blue Moon” & “Stroke It Noel” combined with the distorted darkness of offerings like “Holocaust” & “Kanga Roo”; there’s the hauntingly beautiful but extraordinarily depressed “Big Black Car” mixed with an upbeat rocker like “Kizza Me.”

Big Star’s 3rd always has seemed to me one of pop/rock music’s most compelling explorations of desire, with all its prismatic & contradictory aspects. The transformation of “Nighttime” from the sweet lover’s stroll of the demo to something more disturbing makes the song one that connects the album’s contradictory states—the heart in its nighttime idyll suddenly confronted by a disturbing reality—the air that had only gone “cool” at the beginning is now “freezing.” The fourth & fifth stanzas also re-shape the lovely lines:

Glanced in your eyes and fell through the skies
Dance in your eyes and fell through the skies

At the beginning of the song, this seems purely (in many senses of that word) a description of “falling” in love—after the darkness of “I hate it here/Get me out of here,” it suggests another type of descent altogether.

There is also the possibility of the song exploring the public versus the private
—certainly Chilton's Box Tops' experience must have led him to be distrustful of public adulation as opposed to private passion. Is that the fall "through the skies"—a movement from public adulation to personal love? Or is it something more bleak? The album's exploration of these themes allows us to ponder this question; & as I pointed out in my Robert Frost's Banjo appreciation of the box set, the compilation really enriches our examination.

The setting of the released version is gorgeous; the slide guitar adds a sort of off-kilter lyricism that reinforces the song’s ambiguity, as does Chilton’s vocal, which grows slightly raspy & weary in the concluding lines.

Hope you enjoy the song in the clip below, & do check out Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky.


At nighttime I go out and see the people
Air goes cool and hurrying on my way
And dressing so sweet, all the people to see
They’re looking at me, all the people to see.

And when I set my eyes on you
You look like a kitty
And when you’re in the moon
Oh you look so pretty

Caught a glance in your eyes
And fell through the skies
Glance in your eyes
And fell through the skies

I’m walking down the freezing street
Scarf goes out behind
You said, get them away
Please don’t say another word

Get me out of here
Get me out of here
I hate it here
Get me out of here

At nighttime I go out and see the people
Air goes cool and hurrying on my way
Glanced in your eyes and fell through the skies
Dance in your eyes and fell through the skies