Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Heptones: Book of Rules

SONG Book of Rules

SONGWRITERS Barry Llewellyn, Derrick Morgan, Leroy Sibbles

PERFORMER The Heptones

APPEARS ON The Meaning of Life: The Best of the Heptones 1966-1976 (1999), Rockers (Original Soundtrack, 1980), The Reggae Box (2001)

NOTE "Book of Rules" is not only an essential Heptones track, it is one the essential songs of the reggae canon. If your reggae collection does not include "Book of Rules," it is incomplete.

In this beautiful song, the Heptones express the conviction that ultimately it is the spirituality of the common people that makes history. The couplet introducing the first stanza dismisses the elite as ultimately irrelevant -- the doings of "princesses and kings" are nothing but "clown-ragged capers." The next two introductory couplets stress the importance of a balanced life ("Each must make his life flowing") amid a general optimism about the world ("the sun will be only missing for a little while").

The heart of "Book" is of course the chorus. It begins with the declarative statement that everyday people are the ones who matter -- "Common people like you and me/We'll be builders for eternity." We are assured of the gift of three things to assist our building: "A bag of tools/A shapeless mass and the Book of Rules." Why a shapeless mass? Because what we construct is not predestined: The future depends on what we make of it with our spirituality and intellect (the bag of tools) and the divine guidance we receive from the Book of Rules.

As to the specific nature of the Book of Rules, I don't think it matters whether the book is the Bible or the Quran or the Bhagavad Gita or something entirely different. In the end, the book is the set of ethics that informs our choices -- our conscience, if you will. It, too, is a shapeless mass that we have an obligation to develop for use in building eternity. After all, the future depends on it.

Isn't it strange how princesses and kings
in clown-ragged capers in sawdust rings
While common people like you and me
we'll be builders for eternity
each is given a bag of tools
a shapeless mass and the Book of Rules

Each must make his life as flowing in
tumbling block on a stepping stone
While common people like you and me
we'll be builders for eternity
each is given a bag of tools
a shapeless mass and the Book of Rules

Look when the rain has fallen from the sky
you know the sun will be only missing for a little while
While common people like you and me
we'll be builders for eternity
each is given a bag of tools
a shapeless mass and the Book of Rules

Friday, April 24, 2009

Slaid Cleaves: Drinkin' Days

SONG Drinkin' Days

SONGWRITERS Slaid Cleaves and Karen Poston

PERFORMER Slaid Cleaves

APPEARS ON Wishbones (2004)

NOTES 1. The Carousel, The Horseshoe, The Broken Spoke, and The Gaslight are all bars and clubs in Austin, Texas. 2. "Huntsville" refers to the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. 3. Last week, Slaid Cleaves released a new CD called Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.

Slaid Cleaves' official biography is deceptively simple on the one hand and perfectly accurate on the other: Slaid Cleaves. Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Makes records. Travels around. Tries to be good. According to allmusic.com,
Cleaves majored in English and philosophy at Tufts University in his native New England, and began playing music in garage rock bands while still in high school. While in college, he learned guitar, and later spent a summer in Ireland. He began busking on the streets in Cork, and that was the turning point when he decided to become a folksinger. At Tufts, he developed his guitar skills and studied the music of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. He recalled that he had listened to the music of Woody Guthrie, Carl Perkins, and Hank Williams as a child, so he went back into his parents' attic to discover a treasure trove of albums. After many years in Portland, ME, he sought new mountains to climb, and found some of them after moving to Austin, TX, in 1992.
This bio omits both Cleaves' pleasing Jackson Browne-like tenor and his gift for telling stories via terrific hooks. Although difficult to classify, Cleaves' music clearly draws on country and folk-rock. His vocals have a wry, rueful presence that he puts to excellent use in "Drinkin' Days."

Austin-based performers often refer to the city as if it were an exclusive club. Slaid Cleaves takes a different approach: His references to the city make it open to everyone. The Carousel, the Broken Spoke, the Horseshoe, and the Gaslight could be anywhere, and indeed probably are. (O.K., maybe not the Broken Spoke, pictured below.) "Drinkin' Days" combines the classic folk and country themes of drinking, fighting, and prison, as its protagonist finds himself suddenly sober and on his way to prison after inadvertently brawling with a police officer.

The Broken Spoke:

My drinkin' days are over
No more nights at the Carousel
My buddies say they're gonna miss me but
Who could ever tell
I never knew what time it was
'Til closing time came 'round
My drinkin' days are over
I'm still trouble bound

I used to hang out at the Horseshoe
You'd see me spinning at the Broken Spoke
I'd take my gal to the Gaslight
We lived on whiskey and smoke
Don't know how it all got started
Didn't want to hurt no one
Some bad luck and what's done can't be undone

Well it was way past midnight
Anetta hollered out last call
I turned around and Wranglin' Ron
Was headed for a brawl
I didn't know that other guy was a cop
I guess I didn't care
Sometimes you gotta act like you've got a pair

My drinkin' days are over...

I got a ride out to Huntsville
I'll be there a while
I don't have any regrets, well
Maybe just a few
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do

My drinkin' days are over...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Merle Haggard: Okie From Muskogee

SONG Okie From Muskogee

SONGWRITER Merle Haggard

COMPOSED BY Merle Haggard, Roy Edward Burris

PERFORMER Merle Haggard

APPEARS ON Okie From Muskogee (1969), The Best Of Merle Haggard (1972), The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1977) (1995), Down Every Road (1996), many others.

NOTE "Okie From Muskogee" is an essential part of the Haggard canon. Any anthology without it is by definition incomplete and should be avoided.

"Okie From Muskogee" hit the airwaves in September 1969 as a sort reverse protest song in which hard working middle=class Americans respectful of traditional values expressed resentment toward the hedonistic, idle lifestyles of "the hippies out in San Francisco." Or was it? Haggard has long maintained that the song is a joke:
It started out as a joke. We wrote to be satirical originally. But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were. My dad's people. He's from Muskogee, you know?
It's hard to believe that 1969 was forty years ago, as the echoes of the 1968 presidential campaign and the divisions of the Vietnam War and the great social movements of the time resound today. Woodstock was already in the rearview mirror, though, and the country had yet to absorb the slayings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Richard Nixon, in the first year of his presidency, had been elected by one of the narrowest margins ever (0.7 %) and indeed was nearly undone by the candidacy of George Wallace to his right. Wallace won 13.5% of the popular and carried five states from the Deep South, all of which would otherwise likely have gone to Nixon. The former vice president ran a campaign that appealed to white resentment and that successfully blamed liberalism for a breakdown in law and order. Nixon also found great resonance by arguing to what he called "The Silent Majority" that liberals who had turned against the Vietnam War had also turned against their own country. It was the blueprint of all successful Republican presidential campaigns since.

Indeed, popular bumper stickers at the time declared "America: Love It Or Leave It" and "My Country, Right Or Wrong." The subtext was clear: Dissent amounted to an unpatriotic and even seditious sentiment. If one pointed out that the country was wrong about something, one forfeited the right to call it your country. The correct way to express one's appreciation of the right to dissent was to shut up -- in other, not to dissent at all. Conservative supporters of the Iraq war followed exactly this line of rhetoric in their attempts to stifle and isolate liberal opposition to the war.

Such was the political and social context of "Okie From Muskogee." Whatever Haggard's intent, few people at the time heard it as a satire. "Okie" did not chart as the #1 country single for four weeks by flagrantly parodying its audience at a time of great social change. Conservatives loved the song because it stuck up for them, arguably the first topical song to do so. They had grievances, too, and finally someone sang sympathetically about them instead of attacking them or mocking them. Liberals, taking the song as literally as conservatives, laughed outright at the song's supposed lack of sophistication and its (so they thought) laughable appeal to ignorant rubes. In this respect, "Okie From Muskogee" reinforced the stereotypes that each side had of the other and reflected the divide between the two camps.

The reality was somewhat more complex. Conservatives mistakenly conflated hippies and liberals: The former tended to be apolitical -- conservative, even, in the sense that they wanted government to leave them alone. Not only that, there were plenty of hard working liberals who did not take "trips on LSD," let their hair "grow long and shaggy," or "make a party out of lovin." (My crew cut father, for example.) Indeed, as became apparent in the Seventies, drug use, long hair, and promiscuity new no political bounds. Because of the song's appeal to conservatives and because of a certain snobbish humorlessness, liberals ridiculed "Okie," ignored the unsurprising resentments it tapped, and missed what now appears like obvious satire.

In the end, it seems right to take Merle Haggard at his word: "Okie From Muskogee" is an easy-going, affectionate satire of his father's generation that in the process perfectly articulates their resentments and fears. At the same time, it harbors (one suspects) a certain amount of secret envy. Today, "Okie" endures as one of the essential songs of the Sixties and as the most important song of Haggard's career. Forty years later, his voice remains one of the marvels of country music, a true national treasure.

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take our trips on LSD
We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

We don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.

And I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball.
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all.

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen.
Football's still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still respect the college dean.

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Joan Baez, Paul Robeson: Joe Hill

SONG Joe Hill

SONGWRITERS Alfred Hayes (words) and Earl Robinson (music)

PERFORMERS Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, others

APPEARS ON From Every Stage, Woodstock: Music From The Original Soundtrack and More (Baez); Live at Carnegie Hall (Robeson)

Although popularized by Joan Baez' performance in the 1970 film Woodstock, this labor ballad traces its pedigree back to a 1930 poem by the British writer Alfred Hayes called "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." (Some accounts have Hayes writing the poem in 1925.) In 1936, Seattle composer Earl Robinson set the poem to music; since then, various artists have performed the song as an inspiration for organizing labor and other community movements. In addition to Baez, singers of Joe Hill include Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. In 1958, Robeson performed what must have been the definitive version for an earlier generation at his Carnegie Hall concert. "Joe Hill" remains a staple of Baez' concerts to this day.

The song's unlikely subject was born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in Sweden sometime between 1879 and 1882. Hagglun emigrated to the United States in 1902 and began traveling the American west as a migrant laborer. Somewhere along the line, Hagglund became known as Joseph Hillstrom, a name perhaps inevitably shortened to Joe Hill. Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies") in 1910, gaining prominence as an organizer and writer of labor songs.

In early 1914, Hill arrived in Park City, Utah, having found work there as a silver miner. Shortly after Hill's arrival in Park City, masked robbers murdered a Salt Lake City butcher and his son in the family shop. During the robbery, the butcher returned fire and wounded one of the robbers. Shortly after, Hill appeared in at local doctor's office with a bullet wound. Although he denied robbing the butcher -- and rudimentary forensic evidence supported his claim -- Hill was nonetheless arrested and tried for murder. Hill's efforts to keep the IWW out of his trial failed, and it is thought today that his membership in the radical labor organization was the key factor in the guilty verdict brought against him. A Utah firing squad executed Hill on November 19, 1915. (Complete Wikipedia article here.)

Shortly before his death, Hill sent the following message to IWW leader Bill Haywood:
Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah.
"Joe Hill" has been performed around the world in over a dozen languages. Of the two versions presented here, Baez' version shows "Joe Hill" in its folk roots and -- through Robeson's more classically oriented rendition -- the extent to which the song has been adapted. Earl Robinson had this to say about "Joe Hill":
"Joe Hill" was written in Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 in New York State, for a campfire program celebrating him and his songs, "Casey Jones," "Pie in the Sky" and others. Before the end of that summer we were hearing of performances in a New Orleans Labor Council, a San Francisco picket line, and it was taken to Spain by the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to help in the fight against Franco. It has travelled around the world since like a folk song, been translated into twelve or fifteen languages. Joan Baez' singing of the song at Woodstock brought it to popular attention, but I still get asked the question, "Did you write 'Joe Hill'?" [More here and here.]

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.

"The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
they shot you Joe" says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man"
Says Joe "I didn't die"
Says Joe "I didn't die"

"In Salt Lake City, Joe," says I,
Him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."

And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe "What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize"

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
Where working men defend their rights,
it's there you find Joe Hill,
it's there you find Joe Hill!

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.

Joe Hill - Paul Robeson Jr.;Lawrence Brown

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thea Gilmore: Old Soul

SONG Old Soul


APPEARS ON Liejacker (2008)

There's no older tradition in popular music than a girl looking for a boy and vice versa. British singer-songerwriter Thea Gilmore turns that tradition movingly on its head as she pleads for, not a boy, but an old soul. "Old Soul" is one of those songs where the rewards of the quest are made as apparent by an anthemic melody and determined performance as much as by the lyrics.

Gilmore is not looking for anyone already disillusioned by life ("I don't want the worldly wise) and would just as soon stay age appropriate ("I'll need a young heart"). Moreover, she's wary of the older man with a Peter Pan syndrome ("I don't want a good disguise"). What she does want is that "white light" and the "right song."

While Gilmore seems skeptical that she'll actually find her old soulmate ("Where am I gonna go?...Does anybody know"), she's resolved not to settle ("Don't want the shooting stars/Don't want the passing cars") because the rewards of finding a soul mate are great ("The sweetest idea of home"). After all, no one ever said that finding true love was easy.

Well, I’m looking for an old soul
Where am I gonna go?
I’m looking for an old soul
Does anybody know?
I don’t want the worldly wise
I don’t want a good disguise
Just looking for an old soul

And I’m looking for a white light
Where am I gonna go?
And I’m looking for a white light
Does anybody know?
Don’t want the shooting stars
Don’t want the passing cars
Just looking for a white light

‘Cause when the days grow old
And the nights get cold
I’ll need a young heart
But an old soul

And I’m looking for the right song
Where am I gonna go?
I’m looking for the right song
Does anybody know?
Don’t want to hear the blues
Don’t want some wild chanteuse
Just looking for the right song

‘Cause when the days grow old
And the night gets cold
I’ll need a young heart
But an old soul

Where am I gonna go?
I’m looking for an old soul
Does anybody know?
Its gotta be flesh and bone
The sweetest idea of home
It’s gotta be an old soul
It’s gotta be an old soul
It’s gotta be an old soul

Old Soul (Album Version) - Thea Gilmore

On "The Lower Road," another track from Liejacker, Joan Baez joins Gilmore:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Luka Bloom: Diamond Mountain

SONG Diamond Mountain


APPEARS ON Turf (1994), Amsterdam (2003)

NOTES 1. The phrase "shells of houses" refers to the abandoned stone huts and villages still found in Ireland. 2. Heather is a purplish ground cover common in the west of Ireland. Hence the reference to "the reds and the browns" of the mountain.

Diamond Mountain, also known as Diamond Hill, is part of a small range known as the Twelve Bens (or Pins) in County Galway,on Ireland's famed Connemara peninsula. Local lore has it that Diamond Mountain provides Connemara's best vantage point for looking west across the Atlantic Ocean. As ships bearing family and friends departed for America during the Great Hunger, those left behind would climb Diamond Mountain to watch the ships until they sailed out of sight.

Unlike emigres from most other European countries, the Irish viewed America as a place of exile and not as a land of opportunity, even from amidst the starvation and disease of the Famine. In "Diamond Mountain" -- one of his best songs -- the Irish singer/songwriter Luka Bloom captures this sense of dislocation ("The cruel sea calls the unwilling traveler") by focusing on those left behind as well as those exiled. Two lovers about to be separated for good say their farewell on the mountain, with the one staying behind promising that "I will be here when you need me."

Perhaps the strongest verse in the song concerns the migrants to Australia, not America. Bloom links the aboriginal tradition of songlines with the Irish love of singing, showing that the Irish brought their communities with them in the form of "magical airs." This becomes the only way that the lovers can connect until death. "Diamond Mountain" is a beautifully evocative song, one of Bloom's best.

View from the Twelve Pins

Voices cry out, shells of houses
White-faced children, hungry eyes
The cruel sea calls the unwilling traveller
Who would look for the road to survival

Hold my hand a little longer
Take one last look out over the fields
To the reds and the browns of Diamond Mountain
Bring the smell and the sound to your station

I will be here when you need me
I will be here in the pouring rain
I will be here on Diamond Mountain

They bring their song line to Australia
Scattering magical airs, cities, towns
The dreaming road to Diamond Mountain
An ordinary wonder on the heather ground

Hold my hand a little longer
Take one last look out over the fields
To the reds and the browns of Diamond Mountain
Bring the smell and the sound to your station

He kisses his love, Diamond Mountain
The mad wind whistles, bushes, stones
Like two March swallows back on the mountain
Come full circle at last, heaven is home

You can listen to the complete song here:

Diamond Mountain (Live) - Luka Bloom

Bloom sings the chorus from "Diamond Mountain" at about the 3:00 point of this video:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hank Williams: Ramblin' Man

SONG Ramblin' Man

SONGWRITER Hank Williams

APPEARS ON Gold, Original Singles Collection, The Ultimate Collection, 20 Of Hank Williams Greatest Hits, 24 Greatest Hits, 40 Greatest Hits

NOTE Any Williams anthology without "Ramblin' Man" is by definition incomplete and should be avoided.

Hank Williams sang so often of loneliness and isolation that in his hands they became the the Scylla and Charybdis of the human psyche. This was never more evident than in his performance of "Ramblin' Man," certainly one of the eeriest vocals ever recorded.

"Ramblin' Man" is a perfect example of how lyrics require the right interpretation to achieve greatness as a song. On the surface, it's a well-written account but also not uncommon account of a man who can't sit still, even for love. Williams chalks it up to fate ("When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin' man") to the point of divine intervention. He recognizes that "some folks might say that I'm no good," but their opinion is of small consequence compared with "the life I believe/He meant for me." There's a defensive quality to the lyrics, as if Williams wants to rationalize an inability to commit.

Now, listen to Williams' spooky interpretation of the lyrics. Williams becomes a reluctant rambler, drawn irresistibly by "that old freight" away from hearth and home to the "open road." His vocals echo the train whistle that beckons him to a life leading inevitably to a lonely grave. The defensiveness and rationalization fall away, revealing a man powerless before a fate that he may not want but cannot resist.

I could settle down
and be doin' just fine
'til I hear that old freight
comin' down the line
Then I hurry straight
home and pack and if i didn't go
I'd be 'bout lose my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin' man

Some folks might say that I'm no good
that I wouldn't settle down if i could
but when that open road starts callin' me
there's somethin' o'er the hill that i got to see
Sometimes it's hard, but you gotta understand
when the lord made me, he made a ramblin' man

Let me travel this land
from the mountains to the sea
'cause that's the life I believe
He meant for me
And when I'm gone and at my grave you stand
Just say God's called home your ramblin' man

Monday, April 6, 2009

Leonard Cohen: If It Be Your Will

SONG If It Be Your Will

SONGWRITER Leonard Cohen

APPEARS ON Various Positions (1984), The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002), Live In London (2008)

ALSO A superb version of "If It Be Your Will" appears on the bootleg of Cohen's 1988 appearance on Austin City Limits. (See video below.)

Author of a collection of psalms, Leonard Cohen has long been fascinated by religious imagery. This especially includes Christian allusions, which appeared as long ago as 1967’s “Suzanne.” (“And Jesus was a sailor/When he walked upon the water”).

“If It Be Your Will” is a simple statement – a prayer, really – of resignation that begins with a promise to surrender a singer’s most treasured asset – his voice – if God deems it necessary. Cohen makes the promise without condition, implicitly accepting that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the Almighty has his own purposes.

Having made his pledge, Cohen raises the stakes in the second verse, promising to sing the praises of God if only God will let him. In doing so, he subtly invokes the presence of Christ via his use of the phrase “broken hill,” an allusion to Calvary. We know this is so because of a long-time Cohen association of the word "broken" with Christ. In "Suzanne," "he himself was broken"; in concert patter, Cohen often refers to the cross as a "broken tree." Thus, in the first two verses, Cohen offers up to God's will the greatest gifts he has: Silence and song.

Cohen has long been interested in the possibilities of imperfection: In "Anthem" he writes "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." The concluding two verses disclose Cohen's notion of God as a God of mercy and unification, one with the capacity of forgiving all of the "burning hearts in hell" and binding "all your children here/In their rags of light." We may be dressed in spiritual rags, but their very imperfection invests them with the power the potential of revelation.

Although he composed "If It Be Your Will" in 1984 during the nascent years of the Christian right, there's a prescient, gentle rebuke of those who would see God as force of repudiation and polarization. To the contrary, Cohen argues: God is a god of revelation and forgiveness, if we will only let him.

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.