Friday, April 30, 2010

Terraplane Blues

SONG: Terraplane Blues

BY: Robert Johnson

PERFORMED BY: Robert Johnson, Rory Block, et al.

APPEARS ON: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings [Sony]; Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues [Rounder]

If you’re going to talk about the blues, & especially about the blues from the Mississippi Delta region—home to a great many remarkable musicians—you have to talk about Robert Johnson. This man lived a short life—he died at the age of 27—& actually was somewhat obscure in his own time, certainly not as well known in the Delta region as Charlie Patton & Son House. Since his death, however, & especially since the 1961 release of the King of the Delta Blues lp, he has grown enormously in stature & is generally considered as a seminal figure not only in the blues, but also in the development of rock & roll.

He recorded 29 songs during his lifetime, but not all were released & none were major hits, even within the Delta. In fact, the song we’re looking at today was his most commercially successful side, selling around 5,000 copies.

“Terraplane Blues” isn’t really a song about a car, tho it’s worth knowing that the Terraplane, a model made by the Hudson Car Company in the 1930s, is the auto referred to in the lyrics. The song is ultimately about infidelity & loss of desire. This specific metaphor didn’t originate with Johnson—one notable example of the car as sexual metaphor in the old time blues is Blind Boy Fuller’s “Worn Out Engine,” which is very different musically but shares some of the same images of sexual dysfunction. Johnson’s setting, however, is remarkable for the guitar virtuosity he displays over the top of a standard 12-bar blues progression. One characteristic of Delta blues is the driving, damped bass strummed or plucked on the lowest 3 strings of the guitar. Johnson was a master of this & “Terraplane Blues” is a great example.

Johnson also very frequently employed a slide with his playing, & “Terraplane Blues” includes some memorable slide riffs. Perhaps what’s most notable about the song in this regard, however, is the fact that the slide is used only for a few riffs within the song. More typically in the Delta blues, the slide will be the “response” to the singer’s “call,” & thus be used often within a song. To confine its use to a handful of riffs is somewhat unusual—for one thing, wearing a slide effectively removes one left hand finger from fretting & in that sense is a bit of a handicap.

Why was “Terraplane Blues” moderately successful while others of Johnson’s songs were not? There are, for instance, some notable musical similarities between “Terraplane Blues” & “Cross Road Blues,” tho the latter makes more use of the slide. Was it the lyrics or was it something about the driving beat & the riffs? It’s hard to say what set this song apart during the 1930s from his other great recordings, but it’s most certainly a great blues tune. “Terraplane Blues” has been covered a number of times by such noteworthy musicians as Peter Green, Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Foghat & Roy Rogers (the bluesman, not the singing cowboy!) I’ve chosen to add a video of one of my one favorite blues players, Rory Block, who does a great job both with the vocal & the guitar.

Hope you enjoy the song.

Terraplane Blues

And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane for you since I been gone.

I'd said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won't even blow
(spoken: Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won't even blow
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it's way down below

I'm goin' hoist your hood, mama, I'm bound to check your oil
I'm goin' hoist your hood, mama, mmm, I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin' way down in Arkansas

Now, you know the coils ain't even buzzin', little generator won't get the spark
Motor's in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm cryin', please, please don't do me wrong.
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for you since I been gone.

Mr. highway man, please don't block the road
Please don't block the road
'Cause she's reachin' a cold one hundred and I'm booked and I got to go

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Yoo ooo ooo ooo, you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for you since I been gone

I'm goin' get down in this connection, keep on tanglin' with your wires
I'm goin' get down in this connection, oh well, keep on tanglin' with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire

Robert Johnson

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Martha and the Vandellas: Dancing in the Street

SONG Dancing in the Street

WRITTEN BY Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Edward Holland, Jr.

PERFORMED BY Martha and the Vandellas

APPEARS ON Dance Party/Watchout (original releases 1965/66; rerelease 2002); The Ultimate Collection (1998); many others.

NOTE "Dancing in the Street" is not only an essential Martha and the Vandella song, it is an essential part of 60s soul. No Vandellas anthology or collection of 60s soul is complete without it.

In the early 60s, a happy cultural confluence of the efforts of Elvis Presley, the Civil Rights movement, and iron-fisted but savvy recording executive named Berry Gordy inadvertently combined to change the nature of popular music. Back then, the surest and most effective way for a large audience to hear an act was to hear it on AM radio. For most of the 50s, mainstream white exposure to black acts came via the filter of Pat Boone and his ilk, who released desexualized versions of R&B hits that reduced their joy and meaning to the sentiments of a Hallmark card.

In 1960, songwriter-producer Gordy formed Motown, a recording juggernaut that released a dozen #1 singles between 1964-1966 and that for 20 years would be synonymous with the idea of a hit record. Although Martha and the Vandella's "Dancing in the Street" peaked at #2, it has nevertheless become one of the label's most beloved songs, as linked to Motown as anything by Smokey Robinson or even the Supremes. It will be remembered and played long after other Motown #1's like "The Happening" and "Love Hangover" are forgotten.

"Dancing in the Street" opens with a challenge to the entire world to prepare itself for a new beat: The new, urban black sound of the 60s, a sound not heard around the world until now. Next comes the beginning a litany of African-American centers, a litany that will progress throughout the song. These cities are the source of the sound, places for
Swingin', swayin', records playin'
And dancin' in the streets
Why doesn't it matter what you wear? The song isn't an invitation to an exclusive formal; it's a festive "invitation across the nation" that we all step outside of ourselves, take advantage of "a chance for folks to meet," and dance with each other to the "music, sweet music." The end of the song pointedlyrefers to areas associated with white populations (Canada and England), grandly demonstrating the reach of the "brand new beat."

Joyous and exuberant, a unity song in the same tradition as "Everyday People," "Dancing in the Street remains one of the great songs of the 60s.  While very much of its time, its call for brotherhood through song and dance represents the best of the enduring spirit of that unique era in American history.
Callin' out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancin' in the streets

They're dancin' in Chicago
Down in New Orleans
Up in New York City

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
Swingin', swayin', records playin'
And dancin' in the streets

Oh, it doesn't matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
Come on, every guy grab a girl
Everywhere around the world

There'll be dancin'
They're dancin' in the street

This is an invitation across the nation
A chance for folks to meet
There'll be laughin' and singin' and music swingin'
And dancin' in the streets

Philadelphia PA
(Philadelphia PA)
Baltimore and DC now
(Baltimore and DC now)
Don't forget the Motor City
(Can't forget the Motor City)

All we need is music, sweet music
There'll be music everywhere
Swingin', swayin', records playin'
And dancin' in the streets

Oh, it doesn't matter what you wear
Just as long as you are there
Come on, every guy grab a girl
Everywhere around the world

There'll be dancin',
They're dancin' in the street

Philadelphia PA
(Philadelphia PA)
Baltimore and DC now

(Baltimore and DC now)
Don't forget the Motor City
(Can't forget the Motor City)

All the way in L.A., California
Not to mention Halifax, Nova Scotia, Manchester
Alexandria, Virginia Virginia

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Billy Joel : Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)

SONG Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel



APPEARS ON River of Dreams (1993)

When I was a younger man with a lot less responsibility and a different outlook on life I did a lot of crazy things. I used to blow a lot more money and stay out a lot later doing all kinds of crazy things. I don’t have a problem with people who live on the edge as long as they are not harming anyone or affecting anyone else’s life in the process. I had a good time. When I had my first daughter I didn’t know what to expect. I spent so much time having fun and being loose that I was worried about whether or not I could pull it all together and do what it took to make her life as comfortable as possible. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I was wondering if the responsibility would kick in. All it really took is watching her take her first breath and hearing her cry. That did it for me. I think that’s why so many young men in my community run before things get to that point because seeing them makes the reality harder to deal with when you don’t want to be responsible. I have no respect for those cats. I don’t know how they do it.

Life is rough sometimes and I don’t always make the right decisions. Sometimes when things get a little heavy I feel like shutting down and getting away from it all but I can’t because when the babies go to sleep I want them to be at peace knowing daddy has everything covered. If things happen and it doesn’t go as smoothly as you planned they should at least know you loved them enough to try. The desire to give them that feeling will get you through a lot of things. A two year old got me through living in a hotel after Hurricane Katrina because I never wanted to take that pain out on her or have her feel the despair going on around her. Every morning I would wake up before she did, get a cup of coffee, and watch her sleep to keep myself going. That’s what I think about every time I hear this Billy Joel song. The song is from his 1993 River of Dreams album and was written for his daughter Alexa. It's one of the best songs written by a father to his child and I know exactly what he was feeling when he wrote this. It’s funny because the way life works there’s going to be a time about 12 years from now when they think “Let’s go through the front door because daddy’s in the back listening to that old song that makes him cry again and he’s going to want a hug or something.” It’s alright if they do that because I did it too. They’ll understand when they have their own kids.

Good night my angel time to close you eyes
And save these questions for another day
I think I know what you've been asking me
I think you know what I've been trying to say

I promised I would never leave you
And you should always know
Where ever you may go
No matter where you are
I never will be far away

Good night my angel now it's time to sleep
And still so many things I want to say
Remember all the songs you sang for me
When we went sailing on an emerald bay

And like a boat out on the ocean
I'm rocking you to sleep
The water's dark and deep
Inside this ancient heart
You'll always be a part of me

Goodnight my angel now it's time to dream
And dream how wonderful your life will be
Someday your child will cry and if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart there will always be a part of me

Someday we'll all be gone
But lullabies go on and on
They never die that's how you and I will be

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dan Reeder: Work Song

SONG Work Song



APPEARS ON Dan Reeder (2004)

Little is known about Dan Reeder other than that he is an expatriate living in Germany and that he writes ribald, idiosyncratic songs performed with homemade instruments and equipment. John Prine happened to hear a demo tape of Reeder's first album and signed him to the Oh Boy! label.

A typical chain gang tune -- which Reeder appropriates here -- provided a rhythmic sense for convicts performing what amounted to slave labor, and also served as a vehicle for lyrics with hidden meanings about race and freedom. Reeder erases all of that and focuses on the work itself: Exhausting, meaningless, and unrewarding. Perhaps, one suspects, these are words that convicts might have sung if they could have gotten away with it.

"Work Song's" lyrics speak for themselves: One the one hand, a joke; one the other, a blunt expression of weariness with a dead-end job. They remind me of a story told about Teddy Kennedy when he first ran for the senate in 1962. Kennedy's opponents derided him as a rich kid (he was 30 at time) who had done nothing to merit his financial largesse. As Kennedy shook hands early one morning outside of a Massachusetts factory, a workingman approached him and said, "Ted, they tell me you've not worked a day in your life." The man paused, then went on: "You haven't missed a thing."

I got all, all the fuckin' work I need
I got all, all the fuckin' work I need

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Beatles: Hey Jude

SONG Hey Jude

WRITTEN BY John Lennon and Paul McCartney


APPEARS ON Hey Jude (1970); Past Masters, Vol. 2 (1988)

NOTE The 1970 Hey Jude album has not been released on CD. It is sometimes called The Beatles Again.

My family didn't watch The Smothers Brothers, so it must have been the parents of a friend who told me that The Beatles were about to be on television and did I want to see them? My musical consciousness at the time wasn't raised much past the level of junior high band, so I watched more out of curiosity than interest.

The next seven minutes changed my life.

There was Paul McCartney's face filling up the television screen with his voice singing something about taking a sad song and making it better. The lyrics didn't matter; I was hooked. So I began a musical exploration that has traveled through hundreds of concerts and thousands of albums of music from around the world.

The song, of course, was "Hey Jude." It represents Paul at his best -- genuine, heartfelt sentiments evoked by plain language ("remember" is the only word longer than two syllables) and an infectious melody bulwarked by the most famous chorus in pop music. He wrote "Hey Jude" for John Lennon's son to help Julian cope with his parents' divorce. (Typically, John, notably self-absorbed in a business rife with self-absorption, thought "Hey Jude" was about him.)

The avuncular tone of the lyrics evokes a beloved uncle giving life counsel to a favorite nephew. The advice is simple enough, but timeless nonetheless: There's no point in being unhappy, a perspective Julian was unlikely to hear from his father. This adds a gentle, poignant push to the opening lines "take a sad song and make it better," as if Paul wanted to ensure that Julian heard this from somebody.

From this context, Paul moves on to the preoccupation of every teenage boy: Girls. If you want the girl you like, don't be afraid "let her into your heart." Yes, girls can drive you crazy but if you want to "go out and get her" you have to "let her under your skin." It's scary but worth it ("you begin to make it better") because we all need ""someone to perform with."

Paul then restates the overall point, which is don't make the pain of life worse by carrying "the world on your shoulders" before repeating the first verse, thus summing up the song with the same lyrics that introduce it. The unifying chorus then begins and continues its healing for over three minutes, creating such a communal that one can feel it even when singing alone...

In the video below, if you can watch John and George harmonize without a tear coming to your eye, then your email address must be
Hey Jude, don't make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don't be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

And any time you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don't carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Na na na, na na, na na na na

Hey Jude, don't let me down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You're waiting for someone to perform with
And don't you know that it's just you? Hey Jude, you'll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
Na na na, na na, na na na na, yeah

Hey Jude, don't make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better
Better, better, better, better, better, oh yeah!

Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude
Na na na, na-na na na
Na-na na na, hey Jude...

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

SONG All Along the Watchtower 


PERFORMED BY Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix 

APPEARS ON John Wesley Harding (1967); Electric Ladyland (1968) 

NOTE 1 Dylan was so taken with the Hendrix rendition that he performs that arrangement in concert to this day. NOTE 2 The melody and lyrics to "All Along the Watchtower" played a critical role in the final season of the SciFi channel series Battlestar Galactica. NOTE 3 Sony has removed from YouTube all videos all Dylan's original acoustic arrangement, so I can't include that here.

Many Dylan fans and scholars conclude that "All Along the Watchtower" is a middling song that achieved classic status only because of Jimi Hendrix' epic cover version. The lyrics, they argue, are impenetrably cryptic and depend on metaphor that makes no sense: Dave Van Ronk wrote -- irrelevantly and incorrectly, it seems to me -- that "a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it." Van Ronk believed that Dylan's reputation allowed him to get away with lyrics that anyone else would have pilloried over.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree, starting with the obvious point: The lyrics are quintessential Dylan and no one else could have written them. Dylan recorded "Watchtower" in Nashville as part of the sessions that produced John Wesley Harding, the first album released after his 1966 motorcycle accident. Although the details of the accident remain obscure, it apparently inspired Dylan to turn to the Biblical and apocalyptic imagery that populates both John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes, the sessions for which actually preceded Harding. The succinctness and directness of "All Along the Watchtower" stand out on an album of songs notable for their elliptical symbolism and elusive meanings that often seem just barely out of reach.

Dylan's original acoustic version (unavailable for linking) is ominous and evocative, with its last line ("the wind began to howl") giving way to a stark and icy harmonica solo.  The song emphatically rejects the nihilism that Dylan sees at the heart of commerce:
Businessmen, they drink my wine. Ploughmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
The joker and thief are outsiders who recognize that modern life creates "too much confusion,"  Cassandras warning the rest of us that "the hour is getting late." In fact, the song is laden with portent: "There's too much confusion," "let us not talk falsely now," "princes kept the view," "a wildcat did growl."

Who are the mysterious two riders? I see them as a tabula rasa upon which listeners can impose their worst fears of a society that defines success by wealth and position. For no reason supported by the lyrics, I've always imagined Dickens' children Ignorance and Want grown up, mounted, and on the offensive. But that's the marvel of the song: It conjures your most acute dread, which in turn impels you to not talk falsely and to pace the watchtower of your existence, ever alert for the two horsemen.

"There  must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion. I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine. Ploughmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate.
Let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching; the wind began to howl.

Bob kicks butt around the mid-90s:

Jimi at the Isle of Wight in 1970:

Battlestar Galactica Watchtower montage here...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tom Waits: Time

SONG: Time



APPEARS ON: Rain Dogs; Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years

Tom Waits has many strengths as a songwriter—as a composer, he can spin a lovely ballad as easily as a down & dirty piece of funk; from his earliest days, the instrumentation for these songs has also been consistently first-rate, including everything from a piano trio to the percussion & accordion madness of Swordfishtrombones & Bone Machine. As great as his musical gifts are, they’re matched by his verbal acumen—whether he’s telling an apparently straightforward story or spinning out a nightmarish fairy tale, his words are those of a poet & storyteller; they create a world that comes fully to life during those few minutes the song lasts—& a world that continues in our imaginations after the music stops.

As someone who’s been a Waits fan since the 1970s, it would be difficult for me to pick a favorite album. Still, I must say that I almost always welcome listening to Rain Dogs; the album seems to create a full fledged world—a world in which deformity & desperation seem normative, but where there’s also some faint hope of redemption. Perhaps no song on the album more fully captures that hope—isolated in the midst of a bleak & disturbing scene—than the beautiful ballad “Time.”

Unlike many of Waits’ works, no persona is narrating the story, nor does the story have a distinct narrative line, either explicit or by implication. What Waits does is create a narrative atmosphere, a scenario that the song’s emotions can inhabit. What we discover are moments that have emotional & imaginative coherence—the “invisible fiancee,” “the mamma’s boy” that doesn’t “know when to quit,” the razor-wielding “calendar girl.” In creating these moments, Waits creates some beautiful lines: “the rain sounds like a round of applause,” “they all pretend they're orphans and their memory's like a train/You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away” & “the boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street” are three examples of such arrestingly poetic moments.

The musical setting for “Time” is beautiful—a spare & harmonically simple ballad (especially in the verse—the chorus has more harmonic movement) carried by Waits’ gruff half-speaking baritone. This is music that speaks to the imagination & the heart.


Well the smart money's on Harlow and the moon is in the street
And the shadow boys are breaking all the laws
And you're east of East Saint Louis and the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds like a round of applause
And Napoleon is weeping in a carnival saloon
His invisible fiancee's in the mirror
And the band is going home, it's raining hammers, it's raining nails
And it's true there's nothing left for him down here

And it's time time time, and it's time time time
And it's time time time that you love
And it's time time time

And they all pretend they're orphans and their memory's like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget
That history puts a saint in every dream
Well she said she'd stick around until the bandages came off
But these mama's boys just don't know when to quit
And Mathilda asks the sailors "Are those dreams or are those prayers?"
So close your eyes, son, and this won't hurt a bit

Oh it's time time time, and it's time time time
And it's time time time that you love
And it's time time time

Well things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl
The boys just dive right off the cars and splash into the street
And when they're on a roll she pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons fall around her feet
So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips
As the dish outside the window fills with rain
Just like a stranger with the weeds in your heart
And pay the fiddler off 'til I come back again

Oh it's time time time, and it's time time time
And it's time time time that you love
And it's time time time
And it's time time time, and it's time time time
And it's time time time that you love
And it's time time time