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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.

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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 recently read this post about gender roles in country music (via) which reminded me that I’d been thinking for a while that there’s an interesting space for feminism in country music. What follows is my somewhat haphazard speculations, but let’s start with Kristan Rawls, from the linked post, setting the stage:

There’s a script for women in commercial country music … Of course there are exceptions, but the ideal country woman is often blond (and white), feisty, world-wise, and hot. She is deeply possessive of her man, and aims to squelch competitors for his affection. She gives the appearance of working-class roots even if she didn’t grow up working class, and she’s equally comfortable talking about guns (Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”), Jesus (Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”), and heterosexual romantic relationships (Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away”). But the ideal country woman was not always thus. What has emerged as stereotype was innovative and fresh when Loretta Lynn began experimenting with these themes in the early 1960s. . . . .

I don’t listen to enough country music to know how prevalent that image is, but it isn’t surprising to hear that country music has, like many places in the culture, figured out how to takes images of forceful, powerful women and package them in a way that is safe, non-threatening, and sexy. I think, however, that there are ways in which Country music is hospitable to feminist material, which are minimized by that summary.

Let me suggest, as a very broad generalization, that pop music tends to describe emotional experiences — what does it feel like to be young and in love, or young and pissed off, or just young driving a fast car. It’s about the reactions that people have to the world. Country music can be much more specific about the actual experience in the world that prompt those emotions. As part of the genre it is more descriptive of life as it’s lived.

You may have heard the joke, what happens when you play a country song backwards?

“You get your truck back, you get your dog back, you get yer girl back and life is good.”

That may be an old joke, but, having just heard a country song about somebody losing their dog, it’s an amazing thing. It doesn’t hurt that that particular song was written by two of the best songwriters alive, but it’s really powerful to hear a song about that personal an experience that’s written so directly.

If you believe that country music is more open to stories of lived experience, and you also balieve, as MMelissa McEwan wrote (via*):

Making the personal public and political is serious business. Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect.

It would follow that there is a way in which Country music is inherently hospitable to feminist storytelling. I have no doubt that there are many other ways in which it’s inhospitable but, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Loretta Lynn, mentioned above, was writing country songs. There are famous feminist songs in many genres, but it’s hard to imagine The Pill as anything other than a country song.

I was thinking about all of this when I recently heard “Say Yes To Booty“, about, as she puts it, drunk sex, and the lack of appeal thereof. It’s true that she fits the description quoted above, she is white, blonde, and attractive. But I would argue that is a feminist song, and that it describes the frustrations from life experience, in a way which seems distinctive to country music. You could also compare that to the more explicitly political song, “I Spent My Last $10 (On Birth Control And Beer“.

Which, finally, brings me to the song which got me thinking about this question a year ago which is, perhaps, a harder case. When I listened to, Crazy Dangerous And Blue” I thought it was a feminist song — not in any explicit way, but in the story that it chooses to tell. I continue to believe that, but concede that it’s takes a little bit more work to make that argument. It’s a song about temptation which, arguably buries anything which would be challenging under a certain seductiveness. But I listen to that song and have a hard time thinking of any other songs which are that directly about female desire. There must be other examples, but notice how the desire is not displaced in any way. It’s not a song which builds up an image of the ideal object of desire. In this case the person who is the cause of the temptation is barely described at all. It’s just about her mix of feeling elated and excited and knowing that it’s all going to come crashing down at some point.

There should be example of non-country songs that are that direct, but I’m not thinking of them at the moment. So I’d be curious to know, what’s the closest match to a song like that, or the previous songs, in the pop genre?

Updates: I should add that I don’t disagree with the Kristin Rawls post. I think, ultimately, we’re both interested in people that are doing things outside of the mold of mainstream country. One video that she links to Single White Female lives up (down?) to all the negative stereotypes of country music, both musically and in the gender politics (though interestingly, Rawls notes that the woman who performed that, Chely Wright, has since come out, and believes that part of what that song may feel so cautious in it’s gender presentation is that she was trying to conform to a gender identity that she didn’t personally share).

Also the album version of “Queenie’s Song”, by Guy Clark, is very good, and I’ll post it later today. That was a song I wanted to share, as soon as I heard it and then I happened to realize that, from a certain perspective, “some kid got a gun for their birthday and ended up shooting my dog” sounded like it could be a cliche of a country music song.

* For the record, I had decided upon the thesis for this post before finding that post. Seeing that somebody else was making the same argument that I was, I was happy to steal a citation, but the overall thought was something that I already believed.

For example, Teddy Thompson covering “Super Trooper.” It’s a great performance.

(As some context, if you aren’t familiar with Teddy Thompson, I found this while looking for his fantastic, dark, performance on the Jools Holland show).

I was just listening to Atomic Power on youtube, and was impressed at much it sounds simultaneously fresh, and historic. The notes on the video say that it was, “written the morning after the bombing of Hiroshima by North Carolina country artist and radio personality Fred Kirby.”

It feels like an immediate reaction to an event which is obviously historic at the moment that it occurred. There isn’t much sense of remove — it is the beginning of a reaction, rather than a considered response.

I’ve heard a different version before, but this one is remarkably free of irony.

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.

I don’t normally like to post songs that aren’t in my collection. But here’s one that I just heard, liked, and am not likely to get a recording of soon.

Every Man I Fall For” by the Cold War Kids

I hadn’t heard of them before. I heard the song in a movie was really struck by it. I’m not generally a fan of indie-rock blues melodrama, but I think it’s great. The performance is fantastic; it’s a very charismatic song and performance.

I also appreciate the cleverness in fact that the song is titled, “Every Man I Fall For” and the description is so specific that it can really only apply to one person.

The sound quality on the video is fine, but not great. Here‘s a live performance which, unfortunately, also doesn’t have great sound, but it’s impressive that they can pull it off, and particularly pull off that vocal performance live.

Maybe I should get one of their albums.

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