Friday, May 28, 2010

Come On In My Kitchen

SONG: Come On In My Kitchen

BY: Robert Johnson

PERFORMED BY: Robert Johnson

APPEARS ON: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings [Sony]

What makes a “great artist?” Culturally, we place a high value on originality, & this concept plays a large role in our definition of artistic “greatness.” But is “originality” such a useful concept after all? It could be argued that much of our passion for the original is rooted in such mundane concerns as copyright & other intellectual property laws. For instance, without a piece of music being “original,” how can you secure intellectual property rights?

But in practice, “originality” is a part of a more complicated creative whole, & nowehere is this more clear than in the realm of folk music traditions, & particularly in that very fecund US folk tradition, the blues.

Robert Johnson is generally considered the most important blues figure from the pre-World War II period. He was a guitarist of preternatural skill, a vocalist with amazing range & expressiveness, & a composer of considerable ability. But his compositional ability has to be understood within the terms of his tradition—a musical tradition in which melodies, riffs & chord progressions were a common inheritance that were to be personalized. Thus, Johnson’s great “Hellhound on My Trail” is in a real sense a re-write of Skip James’ equally great “Devil Got My Woman”; “Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” re-sets a Leroy Carr melody; “Preching the Blues” is a magnificent re-working of Son House’s “Preaching Blues.”

An interesting example of how Johnson could re-shape existing material & make it completely his own is the song “Come On In My Kitchen.” If you take the time to listen to the three songs below, you can hear how “Come On In My Kitchen” springs from the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930 hit, “Sitting on Top of the World”—which also begat Atalanta 12-string whiz Barbecue Bob’s 1930 "I'm On My Way Down Home." Johnson’s re-setting of the song is interesting musically because he takes what is a fairly standard 3-chord blues progression & reduces it to what is essentially a one-chord modal song—in a sense, he has taken the more popular blues sound of the Sheiks & made it new by making it old—the modal style tended to be more common in the work of earlier artists such as Charlie Patton & Son House in the days before the 12-bar chord progression that is so common to modern blues took over. In fact, it’s that modal nature, with the many “blue notes” (flatted thirds in particular, making the song drift eerily between major & minor) that give “Come On In My Kitchen” so much of its haunting quality.

There are a couple of lyric moments that should be noted. In the second verse, Johnson refers to his woman friend’s “nation sack.” According to the Lucky Mojo website:

In fact, a nation sack is a mojo hand, conjure bag, toby, or root bag—one that is only carried by women—and it is worn hanging from a belt at the waist, not around the neck. Furthermore, during the 1930s its use, by that name at least, seems to have been restricted to the region immediately around Memphis, Tennessee. Its basic use is in spells of female domination over men.

Johnson also uses the phrase “dry long so.” According to Harry’s Blues Lyrics Online, “the phrase ‘dry long so’ is a dialectic description of being poor. In the context of the Robert Johnson song it relates to not having enough food and clothing and other essential things to last through the winter.” Skip James also uses this phrase in his great song “Hard Times Killing Floor.”

But enough from me—please enjoy “Come On In My Kitchen,” a truly great song, as well as its interesting antecedents!

Come On In My Kitchen

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Ah, the woman I love, took from my best friend,
some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Oh, she's gone, I know she won't come back
I've taken the last nickel out of her nation sack
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

(spoken: oh, can't you hear that wind howl?)
Oh, can't you hear that wind would howl?
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

When a woman gets in trouble, everybody throws her down
Lookin' for her good friend, none can be found
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Winter time's comin', it's gonna be slow
You can't make the winter, babe, that's dry long so
You better come on in my kitchen, 'cause it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Robert Johnson

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Los Tigres del Norte: La Granja

SONG La Granja (The Farm)

WRITTEN BY Teodoro Bello

PERFORMED BY Los Tigres del Norte

APPEARS ON La Granja (2009)

NOTE See David Ortez' blog The Revolution Will Not Be Televised for an excellent analysis of "La Granja" that includes a detailed explanation of the characters in the video. The English translation of the lyrics is also from Ortez' article.

The May 24 issue of The New Yorker includes an insightful article (abstract here) about the wildly popular Mexican norteno band, Los Tigres del Norteno. Los Tigres specialize in performing corridos, songs about life on either of the border that retell actual incidents. As many as 120,000 people witnessed a Los Tigres concert in Monterrey, Mexico, and their show in Houston's Astrodome drew more fans than the Beatles in Shea Stadium.

"La Granja" is a narcocorrido, meaning that its lyrics specifically deal with the issue of narcotics smuggling.  Like all corridos, "La Granja" relies on symbolism and hidden meaning. The video below provides an animated accompaniment to the lyrics. As Wilkinson explains in his article, the farmer represents the worker whose efforts feed the wealthy, as represented by the Animal Farm-like pigs who reside in the protection indoors. The worker stays outside exposed to the elements and to the dangers of the narcotics cartel, represented by the snarling dog who breaks loose from his chains when offered a meal by the fox.

The fox is one of two allusions to Mexican political figures; it represents former president Vicente Fox. According to Wilkinson, the fox tries to steal the dog's dinner, but in the video they seem to be in cahoots. Another possible interpretation is that the efforts of a well-intentioned politician "who arrived to break plates" backfired. According to David Ortez at The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the crashing hawk recreates the death of Juan Camilo Mouriño Terrazo, a politician who died in a mysterious small plane crash.

With the narcotics cartel at his back, the farmer flees to the border across a barren land of desert and bones, its plenty destroyed by the cartel, In the end, though, a border fence crashing into place foils his flight. Abandoned by all, the farmer turns to face the slavering beast with only a tiger (Los Tigres themselves) standing by him.

LYRICS (Spanish)
Si la perra esta amarrada
Aunque ladre todo el día
No la deben de soltar
Mi abuelito me decía
Que podrían arrepentirse
Los que no la conocían

Por el zorro lo supimos
Que llego a romper los platos
Y la cuerda de la perra
La mordió por un buen rato
Y yo creo que se soltó
Para armar un gran relajo

Los puerquitos le ayudaron
Se alimentan de la granja
Diario quieren más maíz
Y se pierden las ganancias
Y el granjero que trabaja
Ya no les tiene confianza

Se cayó un gavilán
Los pollitos comentaron
Que si se cayó solito
O los vientos lo tumbaron
Todos mis animalitos
Por el ruido se espantaron

El conejo esta muriendo
Dentro y fuera de la jaula
Y a diario hay mucho muerto
A lo largo de la granja
Porque ya no hay sembradíos
Como ayer con tanta alfalfa

En la orilla de la granja
Un gran cerco les pusieron
Para que sigan jalando
Y no se vaya el granjero
Porque la perra no muerde
Aunque el no este de acuerdo

Hoy tenemos día con día
Mucha inseguridad
Porque se soltó la perra
Todo lo vino a regar
Entre todos los granjeros
La tenemos que amarrar……

LYRICS (English)
If the dog is tied up
And it barks all day
You should not let it go
That is what my Grandfather would tell me
Those would regret it
That did not know her

We found out from the Fox
Who arrived to break plates
And the dog’s leash
The Fox bit for a good while
And I believe it has been freed
To create a big mess

The piggies helped out
They feed themselves from the farm
Daily they want more corn
And they lose the profits
And the farmer that works
Does not trust them anymore

A hawk has fallen
The chicks are asking
Did it fall by itself?
Or did the winds bring it down?
All my animal friends
Were frightened by the noise

The rabbit is dying
While inside and outside of the cage
And daily there are many dead
All over the Farm
Because there are no crops
Like there was yesterday with so much hay.

On the edge of the Farm
A big fence was built
So that they have to continue to work
And the farmer cannot leave
Because the dog is biting him
Even though he does not agree

Now we have day by day
More insecurity
Because the dog has been unleashed
And messed up everything
Amidst all the farmers
We have to tie her down.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Nursery Rhyme of Innocence & Experience"

SONG: Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience

BY: words: Charles Causley; music: Natalie Merchant

PERFORMED BY: Natalie Merchant

APPEARS ON: Leave Your Sleep [Nonesuch]

When we think about the poetry written in the wake of World War I, we probably tend to think of the “major” modernists—Eliot & Pound, & their ilk. It’s a poetry that looks at large cultural upheavals & examines how those upheavals affect society at spirtiual & artistic levels.

But while this may be the best known poetry to come out of the “War to End All Wars,” it’s not the only poetry. The British poets Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon & Robert Graves wrote strong & moving poems about life in the trenches. & a rather obscure British poiet named Charles Causley wrote a beautiful & timeless poem, like an old ballad in its haunting simplicity, called “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience.”

I must admit, until I’d heard Natalie Merchant’s new cd, Leave Your Sleep, I’d never heard of Causley, despite having a pretty fair poetic background. The fact that Ms Merchant’s new work—a collection of settings to 19th & 20th century poems (& especially children’s poems)—could bring Mr Causley to light is just one of her project’s many virtues. Another great virtue is the beautiful music she has written as settings for the 26 poems.

In this post, I’d like to concentrate just on Merchant & Causley’s “collaboration”—I’ve reviewed Leave Your Sleep as a whole over on Robert Frost’s Banjo. However, it is worth noting that Merchant chose this poem-song to lead off her 2-cd collection of children’s poems, & as such it immediately directs us one of the album’s main themes, & perhaps its most artistically realized one, which is the loss of innocence. In the case of Causley’s poem, that loss of innocence come not just from the child’s encounter with the adult world in general, but with an adult world of war & violence &, at the very deepest level, unfulfilled promises.

Causley alerts us early on to what will develop from his fairy tale like setting—the sailor’s kiss is “strong as death”; the ship seems to sink as it passes from sight (it “dipped down/On the rim of the sky); it returns on a “steel morning.” As the ship reappears three summers later, we’ve moved from the fairy tale dream world of the silver penny & apricot tree & white quay to a ghost ship, emergiong from the sun with gulls flying thru it wrecked hulk. The red-haired sailor who’d promised the presents is gone—in his place is a stranger who brings the promised gifts—too late. The world has been changed—the “children’s toys” are a lie, an affront in this new nightmarish reality.

Merchant’s setting of this poem is haunting, & her rich voice conveys deep & precise emotion. The setting on the album is beautifully orchestral—Merchant & Sean O’Loughlin collaborated on an arrangment that includes the Celtic group Lúnasa along with a full string section: 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos & a string bass. The music simultaneously reinforces the otherworld, fairy tale quality & the ultimate harshness of the real circumstances—& nothing conveys the latter better than Merchant’s voice. The pared down live version on display in the video below is also very effective.

This is a beautifully succesful musical setting of a haunting & powerful poem. Hope you enjoy it.

Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience

I had a silver penny
And an apricot tree
And I said to the sailor
On the white quay
‘Sailor O sailor
Will you bring me
If I give you my penny
And my apricot tree
‘A fez from Algeria
An Arab drum to beat
A little gilt sword
And a parakeet?’
And he smiled and he kissed me
As strong as death
And I saw his red tongue
And I felt his sweet breath
‘You may keep your penny
And your apricot tree
And I’ll bring your presents
Back from sea.’
O the ship dipped down
On the rim of the sky
And I waited while three
Long summers went by
Then one steel morning
On the white quay
I saw a grey ship
Come in from sea
Slowly she came
Across the bay
For her flashing rigging
Was shot away
All round her wake
The seabirds cried
And flew in and out
Of the hole in her side
Slowly she came
In the path of the sun
And I heard the sound
Of a distant gun
And a stranger came running
Up to me
From the deck of the ship
And he said, said he
‘O are you the boy
Who would wait on the quay
With the silver penny
And the apricot tree?
‘I’ve a plum-coloured fez
And a drum for thee
And a sword and a parakeet
From over the sea.’
‘O where is the sailor
With bold red hair?
And what is that volley
On the bright air?
‘O where are the other
Girls and boys?
And why have you brought me
Children’s toys?’

Monday, May 10, 2010

Neil Young: Thrasher

SONG Thrasher



APPEARS ON Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Two themes have emerged from Neil Young's career: The primacy of individualism and the value of change for its own sake.  Few songwriters have expressed the necessity of going your own way as effectively as Young: His eccentric, defiant individualism marks his career and his success as much as any other trait. Even a Young song that doesn't deal directly with this theme comes from his unique, highly personal perspective.

Set in a surreal approximation of the American west and inspired by his tenure with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, "Thrasher" reflects the essential Neil Young theme of the dangers -- fear, really -- of calcification that comes from standing still and conforming. The song describes an arc beginning with an eagle ascending over a river of life and concluding with a vulture swooping down on the road to death.

A vision of gigantic thrashers inexorably mowing down all in from them haunts Young throughout:
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin' like my day had just begun
Although he knows that the thrashers will eventually come for him ("When the thashers come/I'll be stuck in the sun") as they must for us all, they're also a signal to live the life he has in the best way he can. For Neil Young, that always meant being himself; specifically, following his artistic muse wherever it led.

Three times, he returns to stifling canyons as places in which one loses ones way and from which one requires rescue:
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons...

They were lost in rock formations...

I was watchin' my mama's T.V.,
It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode...
The canyon walls of the mind, of business, of life, even of art hem one in: They stifle creativity and suppress the potential offered by change.

Young scatters the song with penetrating, metaphorical aphorisms like this one--
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

--a reminder that we live in times that more than ever require a belief in oneself, as that is becoming all that we have left to believe in.

In the song's portentous coda, Young admits that he, too, will go the way of the dinosaurs, but at least he'll know that when that time he'll have hoed his own row and no one else's: When "the time has come to give what's mine," he'll have something of his own to pass on. And he'll be "stuck in the sun" far from the immobilizing "crystal canyons" where success threatens creativity and self.

They were hiding behind hay bales,
They were planting in the full moon
They had given all they had for something new
But the light of day was on them,
They could see the thrashers coming
And the water shone like diamonds in the dew

And I was just getting up, hit the road before it's light
Trying to catch an hour on the sun
When I saw those thrashers rolling by,
Looking more than two lanes wide
I was feelin' like my day had just begun.

Where the eagle glides ascending
There's an ancient river bending
Down the timeless gorge of changes
Where sleeplessness awaits
I searched out my companions,
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates.

It was then I knew I'd had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don't understand.

They had the best selection,
They were poisoned with protection
There was nothing that they needed,
Nothing left to find
They were lost in rock formations
Or became park bench mutations
On the sidewalks and in the stations
They were waiting, waiting.

So I got bored and left them there,
They were just deadweight to me
Better down the road without that load
Brings back the time when I was eight or nine
I was watchin' my mama's T.V.,
It was that great Grand Canyon rescue episode.

Where the vulture glides descending
On an asphalt highway bending
Thru libraries and museums, galaxies and stars
Down the windy halls of friendship
To the rose clipped by the bullwhip
The motel of lost companions
Waits with heated pool and bar.

But me I'm not stopping there,
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrashers comes, I'll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I'll know the time has come
To give what's mine.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Handle with Care - The Traveling Wilburys

SONG Handle with Care

WRITTEN BY George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty

PERFORMED BY The Traveling Wilburys

APPEARS ON The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

I love this song; it's a joy to listen to (and a joy to watch the video) because it's obvious that the musicians were having a blast performing it. It's also so celebratory: things have been bad in the past, but now it's all looking up, so let's celebrate. The pure joy of being together and having a great time is all over this piece.

This song was the birth of the Wilburys, and the story of its creation is as follows... George Harrison had just come out of a long stretch of depression and hiding away from the public. He'd been slowly emerging from the shadows in 1986 and '87, sitting in on other people's gigs and playing in some all-star charity gigs. As he was getting his mojo back, he thought of recording again, and Dave Edmunds suggested that Jeff Lynne was the ideal producer for the project. He was right; the two clicked, and the result was Harrison's 1987 album Cloud Nine, which was both a critical and a financial success, and brought Harrison back into the public eye in the best way possible.

In April 0f 1988 Harrison and Lynne were in Los Angeles to clean up some loose ends associated with Cloud Nine's success; Warner Brothers wanted to release "This Is Love" as a single, and they needed a b-side. At dinner with mutual friend Roy Orbison, the three thought it might be fun for them to rent some studio time and come up with a collaboration to use for the b-side tune. Someone suggested they use Bob Dylan's Malibu studio, and on the day of the recording session Harrison stopped by Tom Petty's house to borrow a guitar and ended up inviting Petty along for the ride. And the rest is history at its magical best.

Been beat up and battered 'round
Been sent up, and I've been shot down
You're the best thing that I've ever found
Handle me with care

Reputations changeable
Situations tolerable
Baby, you're adorable
Handle me with care

I'm so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won't you show me that you really care

Everybody's got somebody to lean on
Put your body next to mine, and dream on

I've been fobbed off, and I've been fooled
I've been robbed and ridiculed
In day care centers and night schools
Handle me with care

Been stuck in airports, terrorized
Sent to meetings, hypnotized
Overexposed, commercialized
Handle me with care



I've been uptight and made a mess
But I'll clean it up myself, I guess
Oh, the sweet smell of success
Handle me with care

The tune itself sounds very much like a Harrison/Lynne idea, with classic Orbison on the chorus, but everybody contributed to the lyrics, calling out more ways to be abused as they went along, and apparently cracking up as they did; reports of the session include tales of everybody falling on the floor laughing as the called-out suggestions got more and more ridiculous. But oddlt enough, the final version of the lyrics seem to mirror what George Harrison's life had been like up to then, including that last verse: "I've been uptight and made a mess/ But I'll clean it up myself, I guess/ Oh, the sweet smell of success..." The last two years had certainly been a time of cleaning up and regrouping for him, and Cloud Nine smelled very sweet indeed.

When Warner Brothers heard the final product they thought, quite rightly, that no way was this a b-side. The decision to go back into the studio and record a full album was an easy one, and the result was The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, recorded in May of 1988 and released in October. Unfortunately Roy Orbison passed away on December 6 of that year, so the full group would never assemble again. The remaining Wilburys recorded another album in 1990, but it just wasn't the same.

This video is the official Warner Brothers music video to promote the song. You get a pretty good idea of how much fun they had with this; the video is every bit as celebratory as the song. Enjoy!