Classics

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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.

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 just got my copy of Retromania by Simon Reynolds — the book which, indirectly, inspired my recent post on newness in pop music. I’m optimistic about the book. I liked his previous book Rip It Up And Start Again a great deal, and a recently read a review (in the CJR) which suggested that it’s a book which manages to be interesting and thought provoking even though it may not be completely convincing. In fact it’s a book which announces from the beginning that it’s provisional and more an attempt to wrestle with a series of thoughts than to present a linear argument.

So, in that spirit, I find myself skeptical about a couple of comments in the introduction and I thought I’d make note of that now before continuing on to see what he has to say. I may continue to take notes as I go through the book, and it will make a difference if anybody finds this interesting. So please let me know if you would like more on the book.

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Brad DeLong links to an amazing performance by Rosanne Cash.

Listening to it I feel like the tune is just settling into my my bones.

At the recommendation of ben I’ve been listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, and it has really been growing on me. (And, should you ask, no, ben doesn’t only recommend older songs that are, once popular, now generally considered to be un-hip, and which end up being quite good. But you can tease him about it anyway.)

A quick background on the album, since I hadn’t known anything about it prior to listening to it. From AMG:

More than any other Fleetwood Mac album, Tusk is born of a particular time and place — it could only have been created in the aftermath of Rumours, which shattered sales records, which in turn gave the group a blank check for its next album. But if they were falling apart during the making of Rumours, they were officially broken and shattered during the making of Tusk, and that disconnect between bandmembers resulted in a sprawling, incoherent, and utterly brilliant 20-track double album. … Coming after the monumental Rumours, this was a huge disappointment, but the truth of the matter is that Fleetwood Mac couldn’t top that success no matter how hard they tried, so it was better for them to indulge themselves and come up with something as unique as Tusk. Lindsey Buckingham directed both Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, but he dominates here, composing nearly half the album, and giving Christine McVie’s and Stevie Nicks’ songs an ethereal, floating quality that turns them into welcome respites from the seriously twisted immersions into Buckingham’s id…. While McVie and Nicks contribute some excellent songs, Buckingham owns this record with his nervous energy and obsessive production, winding up with a fussily detailed yet wildly messy record unlike any other. This is mainstream madness, crazier than Buckingham’s idol Brian Wilson and weirder than any number of cult classics.

What’s surprising, listening to the album, is how accurate that description is. You have a variety of elements that sit somewhat uneasily beside each other, but which are both quite accomplished and compelling as the output of a band that is at the peak of its musical powers, able to do anything it wants, and completely miserable and who are able to use that to go in a genuinely experimental direction.

Think about it this way, it’s not unusual for successful bands to go into the album following a big hit by saying, “we don’t want to just repeat ourselves.” Particularly after they’ve been touring for a year playing the hit songs until they’re tired of them. At the same time, for this hypothetical band, the hit album was an expression of their musical tastes and interests and skills when they made. So if their only inspiration for the follow-up is the desire to not draw from that same well again it puts them in the spot of having to treat part of their own tastes as something to be avoided.

In this case I suspect, the emotional turmoil of the band made it easier to be in a genuinely different emotional and creative space than the previous album. This is largely hypthetical, I don’t really know Rumors or much about Fleetwood Mac in general, but it’s the narrative that Tusk conjures even if you haven’t heard the previous album.

So, start with of Lindsey Buckingham’s songs the pointed, What Makes You Think You’re The One“, all clipped lines and sharp percussion. It’s a cliche to describe angry songs as “self-lacerating” but there’s an odd effect from a song in which the emotions are so sharp, and the production is so careful. What would inspire somebody to spend that much time polishing something that’s so unhappy?

I’ve also been reading the 33 1/3 book on Tusk, which I would quote from but I don’t have it in front of me. But he makes the argument that Tusk really is “art for arts sake,” and “What Makes You Think You’re The One” is a good example of why you would say that. The lyrics are clever, the song is smart and well constructed, but compared to somebody like Elvis Costello, who’s debut album was released the same year as Tusk, what makes it really stand out is the feeling that Buckingham has spent so much time working on the precise sound for the song, and that it’s believable that he’s found something that he could love, not only as a vehicle for the emotion, but just as a musical experiment (reportedly he was a fan of The Gang Of Four, and they were an inspiration). It’s so carefully produced, and most of that production is done by Buckingham.

No contrast that with one of the Stevie Nicks songs, “Beautiful Child“. What grabs me about that song is also the sound but, in this case, the sound of her voice. Not many people can sing like that. As somebody said about the Marianne Faithful album Broken English, “you don’t need to have heard the ‘before’ to know that this is an ‘after.'” It’s a song about heartache, and she sounds like she’s managed to go through a wide enough range of heartache that it’s become a deeply complex and textured emotion. It’s remarkable the way in which her voice can simultaneously combine hurt, fatigue, defiance, anger, and tenderness. I tend to like singers who have a light touch and who can precisely express small shifts of emotion from phrase to phrase. This is different, it doesn’t feel like she creates an emotional narrative to the song, exactly, but that all of the emotions are always there at the same time. There is, of course, craft and skill to her singing, and something more than that as well.

I was recently listening to a mix CD that I worked on a while ago, and which I remembered being unhappy with but, on re-listening, reminded me of a number of good songs that I’d forgotten.

One of those, hardly unknown, is “Better Be Good To Me” by Tina Turner. It suffers a bit from the very 80s production (though other songs have suffered more), but I think her vocals are spectacular.

She is able to move nicely from being brash on a line like, “I don’t have the time / for your overloaded lies” to seeming genuinely pained in the verse:

I think it’s also right that we don’t need to fight
We stand face to face and you present your case
Yes, I know, you keep telling me that you love me
And I really do wanna believe
But did you think I’d just accept you in blind faith
Oh, sure baby, anything to please you

It really is a pop gem — great performance with more emotion and smarter lyrics than you would expect from a typical pop song. Again it has a little too much sheen in the production, but it holds up well.

Earlier this year I picked up a Lefty Frizzell collection after ben introduced me to him via this video.

He’s amazing.

Part of what’s astonishing about listening to a collection like that one is just how consistently good he was in his peak. Of the 34 songs, 30 of them are from 1950-59, and it’s just one great song after another. I had head songs like, “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time” and “It’s Saturday” before, and I expected them to be good, but I wasn’t expecting that it would be just one great song after another.

But let me look at one of the hits first.

The other day I was listening to Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday) and I was struck by a sense of awe. For a moment it just boggled my mind to think that somebody wrote that song (credited to Jim Beck and Lefty Frizzell). It just seems like one of those songs that should have always existed but, in fact, somebody had to write it. I feel like, had that been the only thing the wrote (and Jim Beck is credited on most of Lefty Frizell’s early hits) that should be enough to secure their place in cultural history.

The lyrics are good — they feel like throwaway lines, but they’re actually remarkably efficient, getting a lot of punch from a line like, “my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” but that tune is so catchy. And Lefty Frizzell sings it so well. Listen to how well he keeps the rhythm solid without ever overdoing it. He has the ability to put just a little extra stress on a breath to give a beat without either interrupting the flow of the line. Or listen to the difference in the final lines of the first verse and chorus (“‘Cause my sweet baby’s gonna show me around” and “Because tonight is Saturday night”) the first is all easy vowel sounds, the second emphasizes the repeated “t”‘s ( “Because tonight is Saturday night“) but he makes both of them flow easily. They have a different energy but if you aren’t listening closely it wouldn’t be obvious why. Lefty Frizell makes it sound like he just sings each line exactly as it has to be sung, and never seems flashy in his singing, but he’s also attentive to the way that each of the lines sounds different.

I tend to think of Los Lobos as a band that is competent and frequently good, but not notably charismatic. I like their better songs and performances but, on average, there isn’t that much that really draws me to Los Lobos.

But watching on a whim this performance from 1992 I found myself completely fascinated by their stage presence. It is a example of the video adding something to the audio for me.

It makes me reflect that, for many brilliant pop/rock performers, on of the virtues of being on stage is the opportunity for a complete self (re-)invention. You can have David Bowie, on one hand and, say, Bruce Springsteen on the other and in either case their stage persona doesn’t invite you to ask anything about what they’re really like off stage (I realize that part of the Bruce Springsteen persona is that he really is a Jersey Boy, but there is still clearly a “Bruce Springsteen persona” quite separate from Bruce Springsteen the person).

Watch Los Lobos, by contrast, they come across as “just another band from East LA” — representing a specific time and place, which is grounded in real world community. The fact that they’re heavier, non-white, wearing what look like department store clothes, etc . . . creates a very different impression than how most pop acts present themselves.

That may just be an illusion; I’m not making a claim about “authenticity” per se, just that I found the video really effective as a combination of sound and image. I’m sure they each have their performance persona.

Incidentally, here are two more recent videos of theirs which I also like. One from a festival in which they look like rock stars, and one from a more casual setting in which they look every bit like veteran musician who have spent a lot of time holding those instruments.

Living Room Songs — track 10 “Feast Here Tonight” by the Stanley Brothers from An Evening Long Ago: Live 1956

I was recently told by a friend of mine that the album that this was taken from was, by a significant margin, his favorite CD of those that I had given him. It’s a very cool recording, AMG describes how it happened:

Larry Ehrlich was at end of a long day in a studio in Bristol, VA. Carter and Ralph Stanley as well as Ralph Mayo and Curley Lambert entered the studio in front of one microphone, and Ehrlich, after seeing them play hog callings, a couple of radio shows, and a barn dance, asked the band to sing some of the traditional songs they had been recording for the past 16 years. The results, completely unearthed until now, are no less than stunning. This is the Stanleys as listeners have never heard them: laid-back, relaxed, and full of recollection and goodwill, singing and playing songs as familiar to them as their upbringing. . . .

This track is one of the faster songs on the album, so it isn’t typical in that way, but the fact that it isn’t extended at all is. On several of the songs they’ll just play the tune a couple of times though and then stop. It’s very casual.

This was a track that I decided on late in the process. I had already read Bob Coltman’s line, “this is one of those [songs] I love, that just entangle you deep in the brush and mire and dust and deep woods of somebody’s intensely felt locality.” and that made me think that I couldn’t resist the line, “I’m goin down the track with a chicken on my back” in this song.

It’s interesting, listening to it know, how early in the career of the Stanley Brothers (in particular Ralph) it was recorded, since it sounds so experienced. Ralph and Carter Stanley were, respectively 29 and 31 years old at the time of that recording. Ralph Stanley was well known in Bluegrass circles, but received much wider recognition after his recording of “O Death” from “O Brother Where Art Thou” released in 2000, 44 years after this recording. Not that the Stanley Brothers were novices, according to Wikipedia, had released about 30 singles at that point and were clearly experienced performs. But, as it happens, they were also comparatively youthful.

Otis Redding is, for me, the singer that defines Soul music. There are other Soul singers that I love or like but I always find myself thinking about the ways in which the differ from the standard that Otis Redding set. I’ve posted a couple of his songs before, but both of those were uptempo numbers. I’ve been thinking about posting “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” partially because I have a great Etta James cover of it, and I think the comparison is interesting.

But the other day something reminded me that “Amen” was one of the favorite Otis Redding songs of a friend of mine who is a singer, and now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a funny song, it isn’t particularly clever (the “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” horn part is odd), and it isn’t his most intense, or most most powerful song, but his voice is just amazing. In this song there’s so little structure or forward momentum to shape the performance, it feels like it’s just him singing and nobody else has ever sounded quite like he does.

What a voice, what a singer.

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