Archive for the ‘One song / one album’ Category

Friend of NO Notes Carl Wilson appeared this weekend on To The Best of Our Knowledge to talk about his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

This is Mr. Wilson’s entry in the famous 33 1/3 series of books about single albums. I’ve read this book — which is getting lots of attention lately — and I thought it was tremendous. Chances are good you don’t care for Celine Dion, and let’s just say this book is not so a fan’s notes; it’s nothing less than an attempt to come to grips with what musical taste is all about. It’s extremely smartly done.

If nothing else, check out the radio interview, here.

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This comment from Egypt Urnash, on the recent post about covers and originals and ur-originals, deserves attention, and I know not everybody reads comments, so I’m bringing it front and center:

All the covers that I think of as “good covers” are the ones that take the original and deconstruct it in some way. A really good cover is one that makes some fans of the original feel that violence has been done. Devo’s take on “Satisfaction” is certainly an example of this; their cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” is another exquisite dance between parody and love of NIN’s carefully-constructed whimper. Siouxsie’s version of “Trust In Me” from Disney’s “Jungle Book” becomes a sexual invitation from Lilith; part of its allure is *knowing* that it comes from a G-rated movie.

If you know the original, it’s always there in the shadows of a cover, and part of the statement the cover is making is in how it positions itself with regards to the original. A bad cover simply replicates, adding little; a good cover takes something and turns it around.

A version of an old standard, on the other hand… a listener might compare it to their favorite take, but it’s just another version, in some way. There may be a Platonic ideal version of SJI encoded somewhere in the universe, but every recording of this unattributed song is just a shadow of it. Some are at obvious angles on flat walls; some are at unrecognizable angles on craggy, complex walls, and by staring at hundreds of them, perhaps we can begin to model the nonexistent object that’s casting them all.

(And then there’s covers that work so damn well that even the original artist says “this isn’t my song any more” – see Dylan and Hendrix with “All Along the Watchtower”, or Trent Reznor and Johnny Cash with “Hurt”. One could say that this is a time where the cover gets closer to the Platonic ideal of the song than the original artist.)

I particularly agree with the first point about covers that deconstruct. I always feel, when I hear such a cover, that the artist has found a completely different song hiding within the song I knew before. An achievement.

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Got an interesting note the other day from friend of no notes Alex Rawls, who is doing a little research for a writing project: He’s thinking about covers and originals, and how in some cases there is a sort of ur-original, against which all covers are judged.

“SJI” doesn’t exactly fit that category, I don’t think. The Armstrong version has a certain primacy in my mind, but I think the typical listener hears one of the many versions of “SJI,” s/he doesn’t necessarily make involuntary comparisons with that particular take. Whereas, if you were to hear a cover of “Satisfaction,” I’m pretty sure you’d be measuring it against the Stones original. (I might think of that because I’ve always though Devo’s cover of that very song brilliantly exploited this tendancy.)

Anyway this is a great subject and I’ve been pondering it ever since Mr. Rawls brought it up. That said, what he really wanted to know is whether I’d read anything good/thoughtful/insightiful on this topic of covers and originals and ur-originals, and I had to admit I couldn’t think of anything.

Can you? If so reply in the comments, or reach out to Mr. Rawls at alexrawls@offbeat.com.

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Okay, it has nothing to do with “SJI,” but in the spirit of taking apart a single song that’s been covered many times, NPR has a fairly delightlful little feature on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” And of course they can do what we can’t with “SJI,” which is speak directly to the song’s writer.

I was particularly interested in the point made by Ms. Parton about the song’s simplicity — it’s only like 200 words — being the key to the beguiling nature of Jolene (the character).

There’s also a set of links to YouTube videos of various performances of the tune.

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1. Pal Karen Schoemer talks about her new book on the radio show On Point. She’s joined by Nellie McKai (who reviewed her book for the NYT), Patti Page, and Fabian. The book is called Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ’50s Pop Music. Here’s an excerpt on the NYT site, which I guess might require registration.

2. Earlier I made passing mention of books about albums, or about songs. A site called PopMatters has a huge blowout on the 33 1/3 series of books about albums, and my esteemed friend Zoilus has interesting thoughts about it.

3. There’s a very long piece in LfNO about people who did not want to leave the Desire housing projects, even though they were being torn down. One of the things I learned in writing about that was how sorry the history of public housing in New Orleans has been. But of course my real interest was in why people would fight so hard to stay in a crumbling project. Anyway, the issue of what will happen to the projects in New Orleans, post-Katrina, has been getting some attention, in this Times-Picayune article, and this NPR story. Not a lot of good news there.

4. Something to keep an eye on: The New Orleans Kid Camera Project. Thanks again, Mr. Franklin.

5. The Business of Muzak, from The New Yorker.

6. The History of Western Music, in two parts. This is a longish essay from the New York Review of Books, but it’s a lot more concise than 4,154-page, six volume work it discusses.

Actual number of links in this installment of “6 Links:” 13

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Of all the contacts I’ve made since posting the first version of my “St. James Infirmary” essay online in 2003, none has been more consistently amazing than Robert W. Harwood, who knew a tremendous amount about the song and its history, and even wrote a self-published book on the subject, called A Rake’s Progress. This was a personal and non-commercial project, that worked in tandem with a CD compilation that he put together for friends. It’s a fascinating work that I’m lucky enough to have a copy of.

The good news is that he’s at work on a second (revised and expanded) edition of the book, which you will learn about here. Bob was good enough to answer a series of questions that I sent him about his research, and the book, and I will devote this week to that email interview.

Here is Part One.

Q: Let’s begin with the obvious questions. A Rake’s Progress, as you note in the book’s introduction, is about “the evolution of a song.” What was your entry to this, as a listener? That is, what version of the song (or songs) was the one you knew and/or got curious about first?

A: Bob Dylan and Lou Rawls! Around 1992 a friend sent me a tape of previously unreleased Dylan songs. I found out later that these came from Columbia’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. (Should any record executives out there feel concerned, rest assured that I later bought the CD.) The song “Blind Willie McTell” immediately caught my attention. I never tired of listening to it. Some years later I was playing a newly bought compilation CD of jazz vocals, and Lou Rawls came over the speakers singing “St. James Infirmary.” This was the first time I’d heard “SJI.” Rawls sings his own introduction, “When will I ever stop moaning / When will I ever smile / My baby went away and she left me / She’ll be gone for a long, long while” and so on. He then gets into the song proper, and at this point I shot up from my chair, exclaiming aloud “That’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’!!!” For some reason that I can’t explain today, I became quite excited. There was nobody else in the room. The Dylan lyrics, “I’m standing by the window of the old St. James Hotel / and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” came to mind, and that started it.

I have since played this Rawls song to friends, and they often don’t recognize the similarity.

At what point did you decide to write A Rake’s Progress? Was it a way to organize informal research, or did the decision to write something come first, and then the research got ramped up as a result?

A bit of both, actually. I plunged into trying to find out more about the song — and about the ground from which the song grew — out of simple curiosity. It so happened that I was able to gather quite a bit of information, and had become intrigued by the question, “How did Joe Primrose/Irving Mills gain credit for the song’s authorship?” My wife, Pam, encouraged me to start writing, and gradually I began to put together an essay of sorts. This led, of course, to further research. I found, for instance, that many of our assumptions about the arising of the blues are faulty. That the advent of recorded music dramatically altered the process of musical evolution. That the path I was exploring had many crossroads. In an appendix I wrote, “The problem is that, often, the closer one gets to something the less distinct it becomes. Or, it becomes part of a larger landscape, the puzzle becomes more complex and one has to select which areas to investigate . . . I was sometimes left with the impression that, had I been able to search all the pathways that opened up during my exploration, the result would have been nothing short of a history of the world. Which is, of course, impossible.”

So, the essay became something else. And Pam, who works as a graphics artist for a university book publisher, began to muse about actually creating a book. I created a cover illustration, Pam designed a cover and formatted the text. The book was kept short (about 70 pages), as we were concerned about the cost of printing. And we finally did print forty copies, most of which were given to family and friends as gifts. By this time, you and I were exchanging letters, some of our discussions found their way into A Rake’s Progress, and you were the first person to whom I sent the completed book.

I am working on a revision, considerably expanded. The aim is for the fall of this year. Again we will publish it ourselves. We are considering offering it for general sale and so, because of copyright issues, won’t be able to include an illustrative CD. If anyone is interested in purchasing this book when it’s finished, they can send me a note at robertharwood@rogers.com. I could then inform them when it’s ready. As we’ll be publishing it ourselves, I should be able to keep the cost fairly low.

Tomorrow: Part Two, the early recording industry, the blues, and other important contexts.

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 - Blind Willie McTell
“Blind Willie McTell,” by Bob Dylan

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I’ve been a bit negligent about posting lately, not because I’m out of things to say, but because we’re still away from home and I can’t finish any of the various half-written items I have planned without consulting materials back at headquarters.

But in the meantime, I did want to mention a recent email exchange. Lots of surprising correspondence regarding “St. James Infirmary” comes my way, but nothing has surprised me more than a question this week from a magazine fact-checker. Apparently this magazine has a story coming up that makes passing mention of the song “The Streets of Laredo,” which of course is a descendent of “The Unfortunate Rake,” which also spawned “St. James Infirmary.” The fact-checker needed to confirm or clear up the relationship between “Streets of Laredo” and “St. James Infirmary,” and this assignment had led him, of all places, to me.

“Would you,” my inquisitor asked, “consider yourself the most definitive source of info on ‘St. James Infirmary?’”

The answer is no. I would consider myself: some guy. (I did try to help him out as best I could, of course.) But it’s interesting how this sort of thing works — how random obsessive musings on the Web have a different sort of sheen than, say, random obsessive musings from the last seat the bar.

Anyway, both his question and my thoughts about it reminded me of a recent article in the Boston Globe. This piece argued that while “the digital music age” is having a negative effect on albums, “a movement to preserve [the album idea] has recently been gaining momentum, and in an unlikely field-book publishing.” A a variety of examples are cited. Then, the final third of the piece notes that recently, “a spate of books extolling the virtues, and plumbing the depths, of individual songs have appeared alongside books about albums. The critic Greil Marcus has dissected Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ at book length. Dave Marsh wrote about ‘Louie Louie’; David Margolick, ‘Strange Fruit.’ There are books on ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Amazing Grace.'” Also mentioned is “Stagolee Shot Billy,” by Cecil Brown, as well as a forthcoming book about “House of the Rising Sun,” which I believe has a history like that of “St. James Infirmary,” in some ways. The writer argues that these books have less in common with the ones about albums than with books like “Salt,” “Cod,’ “Spice,” “Zipper,” and so on. “As with these projects, books about single artworks can provide revelations about the world beyond the thing itself.” (The writer of the article evidently has a book coming out called “Jeans.”)

I became aware of this by way of a post on Zoilus, where my old pal Carl Wilson made the following useful point: “While I mainly agree, the potential trouble with using a song as a window into cultural history — just as with using salt or tobacco — is that you risk making more of the song’s journey and influence than is really warranted, and as creative as that can be, it can also curdle into crap, of the ‘the song that changed history’ variety. To quote the Artforum review of Dave Marsh’s Louie Louie book, for instance: ‘By the end of his book Marsh is claiming Richard Berry as the forebear of both rapper Ice-T and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, insisting, with typical understatement, “Louie Louie shaped the modern rock ‘n’ roller’s entire world.”‘”

Yeah. I’ve thought about this very issue. I certainly don’t think that “St. James Infirmary” changed the world. On the other hand, I’m interested in the way it has traveled the world. I don’t think it has had an effect on history; but I do think it opens a lot of interesting windows on forgotten historical moments. Perhaps above all, I think of the song not so much as being an answer, so much as containing a seemingly endless series of fascinating questions. And so the real reply to that fact checker might have been: I consider myself to be more confused about “St. James Infirmary” than almost anybody else, and thus, arguably, the least definitive source on the topic. This site isn’t about expertise, it’s about uncertainty, and ambiguity. Which, as it happens, I find far more interesting.

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