Category Archives: Popular music

Maddy Prior gets her ear in

In an interview, Maddy Prior recalled her early impressions of English traditional music.

“We did a bit at school and as a result I didn’t like it very much,” she says, “but it was cool in my adolescence to sing American folk songs and get into Bob Dylan. From that I started going to folk clubs.”

“I drove Reverend Gary Davis around for a month in 1966. That was a character forming experience! Then I met this American couple and drove them around for a year. They told me to stop singing American folk songs, because they said I was rubbish at it!”

“They had lots of tapes of English folk music and I started to listen to them, reluctantly at first, I might add. I found the songs old and boring. But I listened to the tapes again, and again, and eventually I found ‘Oh I like that song’, ‘Oh I like that one too’. You get your ear in, that’s what you have to do with any music.”

Quoted in “Please to see the folk-rock queen” by Kernan Andrews (Galway advertiser 8 May 2014).

Today is Prior’s 70th birthday! Above, at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2016; below, singing Steeleye Span’s 1975 hit All around my hat in 2004.

BONUS: The female drummer in 1971, when the Steeleye Span lineup included the legendary Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings.

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Ian Anderson’s visual songwriting

In an interview, Ian Anderson discussed the songs on his third solo album, The secret language of birds.

“I like singing songs that put people in a landscape. I have a picture in my head for each song that I write, and it’s a framed, still image. My early training as a painter and drafter, I think, produced in me a way of writing music and lyrics that illustrate visual ideas.”

“I try to bring some maturity to the thing I’ve been doing for most of my career, writing songs that tell people a story, not in the temporal sense, but a story they make up to fit the picture I suggest to them.”

“It’s like sending people a postcard. You’re giving them a little flavor of where you are and what you feel and how you’re getting on. But it can only be just that, a little snapshot. They have to do some of the work to imagine the bigger picture.”

This according to “Passion plays: Ian Anderson’s three decades of visual songwriting with Jethro Tull” by Steve Boisson (Acoustic guitar XI/5:95 [November 2000] pp. 86–97).

Today is Anderson’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2000, the year the album was released; below, the album’s title track.

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Carlos Santana and “Smooth”

In 1971 Carlos Santana’s Black magic woman hit number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It would take him nearly three decades to make the top 10 again, but it was a comeback worth waiting for. In 1999 Santana’s Smooth, featuring Rob Thomas on vocals, topped the chart for a stunning 12 weeks and stayed 58 total weeks on the list, making it the No. 2 Hot 100 song of all time. The recording also won three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.

Recalling the recording session in a 2014 interview, Santana said “I didn’t want [the guitar part] to have brain or mind or energy. I wanted it to be with innocence. Innocence to me is very sacred and very sensual. People should never lose their innocence. So I didn’t practice, purposefully. As soon as I found out where my fingers go on the neck, you close your eyes and you complement Rob. Kind of like a minister: He says Hallelujah, and you say your name.”

“When you make it memorable, you hang around with eternity.”

This according to “Smooth at 15: Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas reflect on their Billboard Hot 100 smash” by Leila Cobo (Billboard 27 June 2014).

Today is Santana’s 70th birthday! Above, performing Smooth in 1999; below, the official music video.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, Reception

Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s church

Arlo Guthrie’s classic story-song Alice’s restaurant massacree hinges on an episode in which the teenaged Guthrie and a friend help Alice and Ray Brock clean their Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home—a deconsecrated 17th-century church—for Thanksgiving dinner, by hauling away a half-ton of garbage.

When Arthur Penn made his film Alice’s restaurant, he used the Brocks’ church/home as a metaphor, including a scene in which a man stands up and says “We’re going to reconsecrate this church.”

And so it came to pass: “Alice’s church” is now the Guthrie Center, an interfaith church celebrating religious and cultural diversity, and a not-for-profit educational foundation (inset; click to enlarge).

The church provides weekly community free lunches and support for families living with HIV/AIDS as well as other life-threatening illnesses. It also hosts a summer concert series; Arlo does several fundraising shows there every year. There are also annual events, including a  Thanksgiving dinner for families, friends, doctors, and scientists who live and work with Huntington’s disease (a condition that afflicted Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie).

This according to “Arlo Guthrie’s storied career” by Richard Harrington (The Washington post 12 August 2005).

Today is Arlo Guthrie’s 70th birthday! Above, a scene in the church from the film; below, the film’s ending, outside the church.

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When Lennon met McCartney

On the afternoon of 6 July 1957 a group called The Quarrymen performed at the garden fete of St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, Liverpool; the group’s singer and guitarist was the 16-year-old John Lennon.

As the group was setting up their equipment to play again that evening, one of the members introduced Lennon to one of his classmates, the 15-year-old Paul McCartney. The pair chatted for a few minutes, and McCartney showed Lennon how to tune a guitar (Lennon’s instrument was in G banjo tuning). McCartney then sang some popular songs, including a medley of songs by Little Richard.

The two were impressed with each other, and after the Quarrymen’s show the group and some friends, along with McCartney, went to a Woolton pub where they lied about their ages to get served.

This according to “John Lennon meets Paul McCartney” (The Beatles bible, s.n., s.l.).

These events occurred 60 years ago today! Above, Lennon at the afternoon performance (click to enlarge); below, excerpts from The Quarrymen’s show that night, recorded by an audience member—the recording was acquired by EMI in 1994, but was not released commercially since the sound quality was deemed unacceptable.

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Lena Horne’s second act

 

“I was the first black sex symbol, the first black movie star, and the first black to integrate saloons…I had to take a lot of flak from my own people, and everybody else’s people.” Thus spoke the very forthright, five-feet, five-inches Lena Horne, a musician’s singer who overcame deep-seated prejudice to establish herself professionally. “I was always told to remember I was the first of my race to be given a chance in the movies, and I had to be careful not to step out of line, not to make a fuss. It was all a lie. The only thing that wasn’t a lie was that I did make money—if I didn’t, they wouldn’t have kept me.”

Horne’s artistry deepened over the years as she came into her own. In 1974, at peace with herself and liberated, she reckoned, “In my early days I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I’m black and a woman, singing my own way.” In 1980, shortly after she had been named one of the world’s ten most beautiful women, she announced her retirement and embarked on a farewell tour.

But she had a change of heart, and in May 1981 Horne opened on Broadway in Lena Home: The lady and her music. She performed a host of songs associated with her (Stormy weather, The lady is a tramp), interspersed with sharp talk and direct reflections on her life. Newsweek raved that she was “the most awesome performer to hit Broadway in years.” The New York times added, “The lady’s range, energy, originality, humor, anger, and intelligence are simply not to be believed.”

For her one-woman production, Horne received a special Tony Award and a Grammy (for the LP album set), and the show was taped for cable TV. Lena Home: The lady and her music ran on Broadway for 333 performances, closing on her 65th birthday. She went on tour with the production in 1984; that December she received the Kennedy Center Honors Award for Lifetime Achievement.

This according to “Lena Horne” by James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts (Hollywood songsters: Singers who act and actors who sing—A biographical dictionary [New York: Routledge, 2003] p. 380–90); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Horne’s 100th birthday! Above, the lead publicity shot for her 1981 show; below, an excerpt.

BONUS: Your wish is our command—here’s the whole show.

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Filed under Black studies, Performers, Popular music

Tritonal crime

In an experiment, over 100 listeners reported associations with crime and detectives when presented with musical examples that were not originally intended to evoke such responses. These examples all involved melodic and harmonic tritones or half-diminished seventh chords, which have long been standard features of the music of crime-themed films, radio programs, and television shows.

The use of tritones and half-diminished chords in these contexts owes as much to their function as a style indicator of certain types of jazz—and as a genre synecdoche of people, places, and activities associated with that style—as it does to its history of harmonic ambiguity and associations with drama and woe in the European classical tradition.

This according to “Tritonal crime and music as music” by Philip Tagg, an essay included in Norme con ironie: Scritti per i settant’anni di Ennio Morricone (Milano: Suvini Zerboni, 1998, pp. 273–309).

Above and below, The man from U.N.C.L.E. brought a plethora of tritones to family televisions in the mid-1960s.

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Filed under Film music, Popular music, Theory

Jason Mraz, avocado farmer

When Jason Mraz bought a 5½-acre ranch northeast of San Diego in 2004, he thought it would be “a place to be isolated when you have a crazy life.” The densely packed property is planted mostly with avocados, along with Meyer lemons, pomegranates, guavas, and mangoes.

In his early performing days Mraz had regularly subsisted on fast food, soda, and cigarettes, but as he began to tour he realized that a better regimen was essential to maintaining his health, and in 2008 “we decided to bring a chef out on tour with us for 30 days and go vegetarian and raw to see what would happen. And I mean, a dramatic transformation. Not just in weight loss, but in overall health and energy.”

Mraz became a dedicated locavore, and an avid cultivator and consumer of his avocados and other crops. “The first time I was served a big chunk of avocado on my salad, I didn’t know what to do with it. Now I’m among them all the time, experimenting with them, making meals and adding spices and whatnot. You know, your palate evolves.”

This according to “The accidental avocado farmer” by Jim Romanoff (Eating well XIV/1 [January–February 2015] pp. 88–94).

Today is Mraz’s 40th birthday! Below, performing Back to the earth at his avocado ranch.

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Why ladies love country boys

The emergence of a strikingly cohesive set of gender narratives on country radio in the late 2000s and early 2010s can be linked to the impact of globalization and economic crisis during those years.

In redneck-blueblood anthems, the country boy wins over the wealthy, cosmopolitan woman despite her material success and his limited economic and social prospects. This popular narrative extends the long-standing tradition in which down-home country masculinity is defined partly through its relationship to the character of the upwardly mobile woman who has moved from working-class to middle- or upper-class status.

Whereas some critics view country culture as articulating a form of working-class male abjection or degradation, the redneck-blueblood songs provide a narrative of success that directly reclaims the value of working-class masculinity. This narrative resonates with audiences confronting intensely threatening economic and social dislocation in the global economy.

This according to “Why ladies love country boys: Gender, class, and economics in contemporary country music” by Jocelyn R. Neal, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 3–25).

Above, a screen shot from Trace Adkins’s Ladies love country boys; below, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood’s Remind me. Both songs serve as case studies in the article.

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Kanye West’s influential departure

808s & heartbreak was a jarring departure from Kanye West’s previous work, and, although its initial reception was mixed at best, it has proven to be the most influential album of his career both as a performer and a producer.

Written and recorded in haste on the heels of his mother’s death and a breakup with his fiancée, 808s features chilly synth textures, brittle drum machines, and West’s blatantly auto-tuned singing throughout. With the help of T-Pain, who, ironically, had come to be mocked for his extensive use of auto-tune, the album made the pitch-correction technology relevant again.

Another unexpected source of inspiration was found in Phil Collins—both in terms of his vocal style and the gated reverb drum sound that he invented in the 1980s. Trapping and snuffing out overtones with a signal processor, the noise gate made the programmed beats of the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine sound both vivid and lifeless.

The album’s distinctive sound has since filtered into contemporary hip hop and R&B, and the only thing more influential than its sound is its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. 808s & heartbreak made sullen solitude fashionable, with many a male R&B star now presenting himself as a misunderstood antihero, reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net.

This according to “The coldest story ever told: The influence of Kanye West’s 808s & heartbreak” by Jayson Greene (Pitchfork 22 September 2015).

Today is West’s 40th birthday! Above, performing Love lockdown, the album’s lead single; below, the full album.

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