I started this post yesterday and got stuck, so I’m going to try to keep it simple and unfinished, and figure that it’s still worth sharing.

In the latest post in the “52 Girls” series at The Song In My Head Today, Holly posted “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home?” by the Kinks. A song Ray Davies wrote for his sister who had moved to Australia. It made me think about another song with a girl’s name in the title written to an absent sister, Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethania.” It’s a favorite of mine, and the comparison seemed like an interesting way to think about both songs — Ray Davies wistful, restrained, English song and Caetano Veloso’s more emotional, troubled, experimental song.

The more I listened to them, the more I realized how complicated both songs are, and the harder it seemed to encapsulate their differences in any simple scheme. “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home” started to seem more forceful, and more of a rock song as I listened to it, and “Maria Bethania” is experimental but also the structure is very important since the clear contrast in emotion between the verses and the chorus is part of what creates the emotional dynamic of the song (until the final line of the last verse, “but I love her face because it has nothing to do with all that I’ve said” brings those two together. I hear that as the first mention of Maria Bethania in the verses, and the the “she” and “you” before that refer to somebody else who may be a specific figure, or just a general expression of his alienation from Brazil),

But in respect there is a simple and crucial difference between the two songs. Ray Davies is still at home, singing to his sister who has left. Caetano Veloso is the one in a foreign county, having been forcibly exiled from Brazil, moved to London, and is singing to his sister who is still in Brazil. Because I don’t speak Portuguese my knowledge of Caetano Veloso’s career is limited and mostly confined to his songs in English, but some things are very clear about that album. He looks harried on the album cover, wearing a heavy coat, and looking intently into the camera. The first two songs he wrote for the album were “London, London” and “A Little More Blue” (which deserves it’s own post at some point), both songs of homesickness. “A Little More Blue” presents an intense loneliness and “London, London” is more open to the experience — he sings about walking down the streets and not knowing anybody and not making eye contact, but feeling safe and almost whimsical. In the final verse he sings, “I choose no face to look at / Choose no way / I just happen to be here / And it’s okay / Green grass, blue eyes, gray sky, God bless / Silent pain and happiness.” He doesn’t feel at home, but he does feel at peace.

“Maria Bethania” alternates between verses that a deep sense of trouble and of things falling apart (the opening line is, “Everybody knows that our cities were built to be destroyed”) But then, the chorus begins with his sister’s name and instantly the mood becomes tender and one of comfort. Just thinking about her is allows him to relax for a moment. Where Ray Davies asks his sister to move back, Caetano Veloso just asks her to, “send me a letter. / I with to know things are getting better.” And then the song end with two minutes of him vocalizing over very dramatic music before, as I hear it, exhausting some of the tension and reaching a provisional but real resolution and calm.

It’s interesting to have two songs, with a similar inspiration, written five years apart by two of the greatest songwriters of their generation both living in England under very different circumstances.

Over at “The Song In My Head Today” Holly Hughes has started an ambitious project — “52 Girls” in which she will post 52 songs that each have a girl’s name in the title. So far it’s fascinating, including familiar songs that are well worth re-visiting, and songs I’d never heard before.

It’s gotten me thinking about songs that would fit that criteria. There are lot’s of them, it’s a pop cliche, but I have surprisingly few in my music collection (or, at least, surprisingly few that are both worth recommending, and not so famous that they don’t need a recommendation). The one that I was thinking about most recently, which turned into this post is the old classic, “Frankie And Johnny.”

One thing I realized, after I’d started looking for it online, is that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a recorded version of the song (looking, I do have a copy of the Harry Smith collection which includes the recording by Mississippi John Hurt, but it was different enough from the version that I knew that I didn’t pay that much attention to it). It was a song that I heard people singing when I was growing up. I knew it was a famous and influential song, but it was interesting for me to learn more about this history.

From Wikipedia, some highlights:

“Frankie and Johnny” (sometimes spelled “Frankie and Johnnie”; also known as “Frankie and Albert” or just “Frankie”) is a traditional American popular song. It tells the story of a woman, Frankie, who finds that her man Johnny was “making love to” another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested; in some versions of the song she is also executed.

. . . [various versions published between 1899 and 1912]

Several students of folk music have asserted that the song long predates the earliest published versions; according to Leonard Feather in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz it was sung at the Siege of Vicksburg (1863) during the American Civil War and Sandburg said it was widespread before 1888, while John Jacob Niles reported that it emerged before 1830. The fact, however, that the familiar version does not appear in print before 1925 is “strange indeed for such an allegedly old and well-known song,” according to music historian James J. Fuld, who suggests that it “is not so ancient as some of the folk-song writers would have one believe.”

At least 256 different recordings of “Frankie and Johnny” have been made since the early 20th century. . . . The story of Frankie and Johnny has been the inspiration for several films, including Her Man (1930, starring Helen Twelvetrees), Frankie and Johnnie (1936, starring Helen Morgan), and Frankie and Johnny (1966, starring Elvis Presley). Terrence McNally’s 1987 play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, was adapted for a 1991 film titled Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

The two things that jump out at me, are that it’s more famous than I would have guessed, and that it’s a song which has has been done by both white and black musicians for a long time. There aren’t that many songs that have been recorded by Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke, or by Roscoe Holcomb and Stevie Wonder. Having listening to about a different recordings on youtube, here are a couple that stand out to me. If you don’t want to go through all of the, I recommend skipping to the last one, by Beth Orton, for a remarkable contemporary recording.

I really like Big Bill Broonzy’s performance as representative of the traditional blues version. The thing that strikes me listening to that is the way in which the betrayal and murder play themselves out in public. Frankie is told about the affair by a bartender who presumably knows exactly what’s going on. In this version she finds Jonny in a hotel, but in many she shoots him through a pair of swinging doors. In either case, there’s nothing secret or hidden

Jimmie Rodgers also recorded an early version (the video dates it to 1929/30). The lyrics are similar but in this case the betrayal is even more out in the open. After talking to the Bartender Frankie, “looks over the transom. She saw to her surprise. There on a cot sat Johnny making love to Nelly Bly.” In this case, unlike the previous one, Frankie ends up sentenced to death, rather than just imprisoned. But the very last lines of the song are this interesting coda, “This story has no moral, this story has no end. This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men. He was her man and he done her wrong.” That, again, shifts the emphasis away from a personal identification with Frankie or Johnny and towards it just being a (particularly dramatic) story about the sort of bad things that happen in the world. That’s part of why this and the previous version make me think of it as a story belonging to a community, rather than just about two people.

By contrast, in Pearl Bailey’s excellent recording the focus is shifted towards Frankie and Johnny. For one thing, changing the person who tells Frankie where to find Johnny from a bartender to a “soda jerk” makes the background feel more comic and less believable (and, unlike the two previous versions, there aren’t any words sung in the voice of the bartender / soda jerk — we’re just told what he said) . Secondly, Pearl Baily adds a variety of embellishments which identify with Frankie like when she mutters, “I don’t blame her she should kill him.”

The version that I heard growing up was clearly based on the New Lost City Ramblers recording, which has a completely different set of lyrics, which appear to be credited to Charlie Poole.

Finally, I came across an amazing video of Beth Orton. It took me a minute or two to appreciate it. At first it felt affected, and I had to adjust to her tempo, which is significantly slower (and the intensity does pick up as the song goes along). But once I got used to it, I have nothing but praise and admiration. I think it’s a completely successful blending of contemporary and traditional style, and up there as one of the best modern recordings of a traditional song that I’ve heard.

Experimenting

As you may have noticed, the site has been awfully slow for the last couple of months. It has something to do with the WordPress settings, because static files load quickly. I’ve been ignoring it for a while, because I didn’t want to bother. But I’ve been meaning to get back to beforeyoulisten at some point, and fixing that seems like a good place to start.

So I’m going to try changing things and see if I can make it run faster. I will probably change the theme, and possible the spam controls, so let me know if you like or don’t like anything, but hopefully I won’t make anything worse.

Holly Hughes recently wrote (in the comments to this post):

I don’t think of myself as a Bowie fan, but then I can’t imagine what Bowie fans would be like. He’s such a chameleon, an almost Dadaist artist. Endlessly fascinating to me.

As a David Bowie fan, I thought I’d try to explain. I’ve written before about some of the things I appreciate about David Bowie, but it’s a good invitation to write about David Bowie in a broader sense.
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I’m starting to see end of the year “best of lists.” I’m not generally inclined towards that sorts of thing since I don’t listen to much music at the time it comes out. For me listening to an album two or three years after its release counts as an unusually active interest. But I do think it’s worthwhile to recognize the pleasure of new music and the surprise of something unexpected. In that vein I can recommend a re-release of a somewhat-obscure 1971 album which I happened to get last week, Gonna Take a Miracle.

I’d had some sense of Laura Nyro as a songwriter who was both playful and intense — she’s probably best known for writing “Eli’s Coming” but my favorite, of the songs I’ve heard is “Sweet Blindness.” Gonna Take a Miracle is an albums of covers recorded with Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash) and is definitely a surprise. It’s playful, certainly, but it dives into a variety of pop standards with urgency and intensity. Some of the characteristics of the album can be explained by how it was recorded:

The studio was booked for a week, yet by the sixth day nothing had been recorded because everyone was having too good a time vibing. The schedule grew so tight that Patti [LaBelle] actually bet Huff a sizable chunk of cash that the songs could be knocked out in a few hours. According to Vicki, Gonna Take A Miracle is first takes, partially because everyone knew the songs by heart, but mainly because there was simply no time.

Listen to one of my favorite tracks, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” The original is a legitimate Motown classic and there cover is, to my tastes better. Nervy yet friendly, sexy without being a come-on, and bringing real emotional bite to its sense of infatuation without being breathless. When they sing, “I don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.” it’s makes immediately clear what the song is about.

Consider what it means to call a recording, “intimate.” The word suggests privacy, some shared confidence between musician and listener. This music is intimate in that nothing is hidden but it is profoundly social music — both in the making of it, and the way in which Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle must have pushed each other, and in the implied connection to the audience, well described by Amy Linden in her liner notes:

Nyro’s fifth album, it pays homage to Motown, doo-wop, and the power of the girl-group. It was city music, street corner music. It was “black” music but like hip-hop, accessible to anyone with passion. Alternately gritty and giddy, it was the sound that hung in the New York City air like humidity on an August afternoon.

The message of the recording isn’t “let me tell you something that I know and you don’t.” It is, “let me remind you how rich and vibrant our collective culture is, that these songs, which we’ve all heard on the radio, are full of pleasure and emotion.” It is a bit of a miracle that the record exists as it is, rich, but immediate and unburdened by grand ambitions, it captures what must have been a very fun day in the studio.

I mentioned in a teaser at the end of the last post a significant musical discovery. I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while because each time I start to write it ending up listening to something new by the artist in question and falling in love and wanting to include that. So, instead I will try to make this simple.

Starting where I did: looking for a copy of the Nick Lowe version of “Indoor Fireworks” I got a collection of Elvis Costello covers. One of the immediate standouts was Christy Moore’s version of “The Deportees Club.” The song has been a favorite Elvis Costello track of mine since hearing the acoustic version included as a bonus track on the Goodbye Cruel World re-issue. It’s clever and tart without the level of vitriol which can sometimes be off-putting in Elvis Costello, and the line, “all my troubles I confess to another faceless backless dress” is great.

As Elvis Costello says in the liner notes Christy Moore brings a nice sweetness and humanity to the song. The self-destructiveness in the original is pushed towards weariness instead. The feeling of missed opportunities in the song is sung as more a reflection on the human condition rather than a grievance.

I happily included the song on a mix CD that I was working on at the time. Then I started to look up Christy Moore and figure out who he was and the more I found out the more surprised I was that I hadn’t heard of him before. He’s a legend of Irish music who’s been recording regularly since the 70s and does almost exactly the sort of music that I like, Listening to a handful of his albums he’s even better than I would have expected (with the caveat that, as far as I can tell from reviews, it looks like the tried to go in more of a pop direction in the nineties which doesn’t sound like a good choice). On any given album there are at least a couple of songs which are as good as you could possibly ask for. He’s a fantastic singer and really consistently attentive to the meaning of songs. The thing that is remarkable is, often, how much weight and thought he will give to every line in a song. He’s unusually good at being able to locate the emotional core of a song and then communicate that and embody that in his delivery.

I have several songs of his that I hope to write about at some point but I will close by just pointing to a version of the most recent song of his that I’ve heard and fallen in love with. This one was recommended by RS and comes from his time with Planxty, a group that did traditional Irish music, has a great reputation but didn’t last that long before splitting up to work on individual projects. Looking at AMG I see they released three albums in 73-74, then a pause and two more albums in 79-80. I admit, hearing all of that I was a little bit suspicious. I’ve been dissapointed before by some of the pioneering British folk crossover groups like Steeley Span or Sandy Denny. They’re good, but listening to them I feel like the battles they were fighting are not the ones that I’m interested in. I feel like Steeley Span was trying to do folk music with the energy of pop music, which is a good thing, but, at the same time, it was a new enough idea that they didn’t completely trust that there was an audience for it, and it ends up sounds very stiff to my ears — like they’re being very cautious and overemphasizing that they are being respectful of the material.

None of this describes Planxty who appear to be legitimately great performers of traditional Irish music (I say, “appears to” only because there albums are somewhat expensive so I haven’t gotten to them yet, but after RS’s encouragement I look forward to doing so) and I want to urge you as strongly as possible to listen to the following song even though it’s nine minutes long.

You get another example of Christy Moore’s ability as a singer in “Little Musgrave” (youtube). It’s a familiar story, but he avoids having it feel formulaic. He’s invested in the story and in the motivations of the various characters. It seems like a simple thing to do, but it’s very difficult and most people don’t pull it off nearly as well as he does. It’s so common to hear ballads sung as if the story has always already happened, as if the song isn’t telling a story, it just exists as a version of a story, as if the interest is in the way in which it relates to all of the versions that are out there. He tells the story and tells it very well.

Youtube also has a more recent live version if you prefer. It’s similar to the version above, and you can see his face.

I’m hoping to do some blogging this weekend but, in the meantime, three items for the fourth of July.

First, Gretchen Peters at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser performing her song, “Independence Day” and talking about what it means to her. The person Gretchen Peters is both a little odd, it’s clearly a slightly awkward setting, but I think her introduction to the song is nice.

Second two songs about, uh, explosions, if you will forgive the entendre.

Eilen Jewell singing “Bang Bang Bang.” It’s a short song, just under two minutes long, but clearly a great performance piece. I discovered her when I was looking for female performers for my Country mix. I ended up using one of her Loretta Lynn covers, but this was also one of my favorite songs that I found during that process.

Finally, Nick Lowe’s sensitive cover of Elvis Costello’s, “Indoor Fireworks.” This is also a relatively new find; last fall I was listening to more Nick Lowe and it got me to look at his catalog again. The Allmusic review of The Rose Of England mentioned that track as a standout and I went looking for it. As it turned out that ended up leading me to make one of my favorite musical discoveries of 2011 but that’s a story for another time . . . hopefully this weekend.

I was talking to somebody today who happened to mention a person they new named, “Lonnie” and I immediately thought of the Steel Dan song, “The Boston Rag” which has the lyric, “Lonnie swept the playroom / And he swallowed up all he found / It was forty-eight hours til / Lonnie came around.”

It’s far from the best or my favorite of their songs, but it’s still memorable. It occurred to me that one of the criticisms of Steely Dan is that the musical genre they’re working in (sometimes described as “lite jazz-funk”) isn’t very interesting. Which may or may not be true but it’s an important point in favor of Steely Dan that their songs are far from generic. The songs are quirky and vivid and their songwriting is very rarely lazy — there may be recognizable Steely Dan themes, but their songs don’t descend to cliche and that’s a big part of what makes them a classic and important band.

Apologies again for the lack of posting. I got really busy starting last July, and it’s only now starting to slow down (and I’m just starting to catch up). But, for my loyal readers, I do have something new to share. A new mix of county singer/songwriters, that I’m quite excited about. Extended thoughts below the fold but I’m definitely curious to know what people make of it. A lot of this music is new to me, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to a bunch new music to work on this, and I’m happy with how it turned out:

Unconventional Country:
1: Walkin’ — Willie Nelson
2: Honkey Tonk Girl — Eilen Jewell (by Loretta Lynn)
3: Saint Anthony With The Broken Hands — Katy Moffatt
4: Hard On Equipment (tool for the job) — Corb Lund
5: West Texas Waltz — Butch Hancock
6: Burning The Toast For You — Suzy Bogguss (by April Barrows)
7: Wander — Paul Burch
8: Listen To The Radio — Kathy Mattea (by Nanci Griffith)
9: Anyhow, I Love You — Lyle Lovett (by Guy Clark)
10: Please — Mary Gauthier
11: Glasgow Girl — Rodney Crowell
12: Six Nights A Week — Peter Case (by Chris Gaffney)
13: Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy — Terry Allen
14: Mystery Train Part II — Steve Earle
15: Out In The Parking Lot — Guy Clark
16: Sittin’ Still — Andrew Jacob Holm
17: Boxcars — Joe Ely (by Butch Hancock)

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I’ve been enjoying the year end music posts by the multi-talented Reinvigorated Programmer (and, if you’ve missed my writing I wrote a couple of long comments on his third post in the series).

But something in his wrap-up post caught my attention, he observes

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7. Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I’ve written before about the trickiness of the label “folk music” (and there are a number of good quotations about the nature of folk music posted by RS in the comments for that post). Personally I tend to be somewhat conservative in how I use the term “folk music” and prefer “singer/songwriter” as the broader term for people who write and sing music that has some degree of personal or social significance. I accept, however, that most people use “folk music” as an broader term than I do which refers to a genre of music, rather than some connection to a specific folk culture. I have no interest in policing that, even if I may grumble about it from time to time. When it comes to definitional debates I tend to be a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, figuring that it’s generally more useful to have a sense of how phrases used than to try to preserve a more technical definition.

But, all of a sudden, I’m curious. How do people define “folk music” as a genre term? I always assumed that it was close to how I would use the term “singer/songwriter” but now I’m not sure. So, in the interest of clarifying, here are five songs which are, somewhere in the universe of singer/songwriter and I’m curious, for any or all of the songs, would you include them under a broad definition of “folk music” and if so why or why not? Leave your answers in comments, I have no opinions except to think that I wouldn’t expect all of them to be considered “folk music” but I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. We have:

1) On of Gil-Scott Heron’s more singer/songwriter songs (with a jazz backing) Lady Day & John Coltrane“.

2) A Joe Jackson song imagining that it would take a deal with the Devil to write anything as perfect as a classic folk song The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy“.

3) Amy Rigby on “The Summer Of [Her] Wasted Youth“.

4) A live acoustic version of I May Hate You Sometimes” by the Posies (album version discussed here).

5) Dave Alvin’s “Harlan County Line” from his latest album. Dave Alvin has said. “There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” This would be an example of the latter.

Fire away . . .

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