Richard Thompson wrote Meet on the Ledge for Fairport Convention in 1969, while he was still a teenager, shaken by the loss of a close friend.
Already well schooled in traditional ballads, Thompson was aware—consciously or not—that sparing the details would lend a universal appeal to the song, which is at once a memorial and a source of comfort.
“I always believed in an afterlife,” he said in an interview. “Even at the age I wrote that I had that belief and that is reflected in the song in a subtle way. It can be taken in many ways, as fans continually remind me!”
“It’s only because it became kind of anthemic for some people that I revisited the song. I had to drag it out and look at it and think ‘Are there things that I can extract from this song so that I can continue to enjoy it?’ And there are. I can find things in it that still speak for me.”
And it speaks for many others as well—in 2004 Meet on the ledge was voted number 17 in BBC Radio 2’s top 100 songs.
This according to I shot a man in Reno: A history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song by Graeme Thomson (New York: Continuum, 2008, pp. 170–71).
Today is Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday! Above, with Fairport around the time he wrote the song; below, performing it in 2006.
In 2007 the innovative young Wu-Tang Clan producer Cilvaringz took an incendiary idea to his mentor RZA. They felt that the impact of digitization threatened the sustainability of the record industry and independent artists, while shifting the perception of music from treasured works of art to disposable consumer products.
Together they conceived a statement that would unleash a torrent of global debate–a sole copy of an album in physical form, encased in gleaming silver and sold through an auction house for millions as a work of contemporary art.
The execution of this plan raised a number of questions: Would selling Once upon a time in Shaolin for millions be the ultimate betrayal of Wu-Tang’s fans? And could anyone ever justify the selling of the album to the infamous Martin Shkreli? Opinions were sharply divided over whether this was high art or hucksterism. Was it a subversive act of protest, an act of cultural vandalism, an obscene symbol of greed, or a profound mirror for our time?
The album’s journey from inception to disruption proved to be an extraordinary adventure that veered between outlandish caper and urgent cultural analysis, a story that twists and turns through mayhem and mischief while asking questions about our relationship with art, music, technology, and ultimately ourselves.
This according to Once upon a time in Shaolin: The untold story of Wu-Tang Clan’s million dollar secret album, the devaluation of music, and America’s new public enemy no. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017).
Above and below, the album in question.
In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.
Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.
The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.
Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.
On the coast of Washington and British Columbia sit the misty forests and towering mountains of Cascadia. With archipelagos surrounding its shores and tidal surges of the Salish Sea trundling through the interior, this bioregion has long attracted loggers, fishing fleets, and land developers, each generation seeking successively harder to reach resources as old-growth stands, salmon stocks, and other natural endowments are depleted.
Alongside encroaching developers and industrialists is the presence of a rich environmental movement that has historically built community through musical activism. From the Wobblies’ Little red songbook (1909) to Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River collection (1941) on through to the Raging Grannies’ formation in 1987, Cascadia’s ecology has inspired legions of songwriters and musicians to advocate for preservation through music.
The divergent strategies—musical, organizational, and technological—used by each musician and group to reach different audiences and to mobilize action suggest directions for applied ecomusicology at the community level.
This according to A song to save the Salish Sea: Musical performance as environmental activism by Mark Pedelty (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
Above, an orca breaches in the Salish Sea, with Mount Baker in the background; below, Idle no More, one of the groups discussed in the book, at the River People Festival in 2014.
The performance and reception of post-World War II Filipino American popular music provide crucial tools for composing Pinoy identities, publics, and politics.
Filipino musicians like the Bay Area turntablist DJ group Invisibl Skratch Piklz bear the burden of racialized performers in the U.S. and defy conventions on musical ownership, challenging dominant U.S. imperialist tropes of Filipinos as primitive, childlike, derivative, and mimetic.
On many fronts, Filipino musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers work within and against the legacies of the U.S./Philippine imperial encounter, and in so doing, move beyond preoccupations with authenticity and offer new ways to reimagine tropical places.
This according to Tropical renditions: Making musical scenes in Filipino America by Christine Bacareza Balance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
Above and below, Invisibl Skratch Piklz in action.
Hip hop teen dance films flourished in the 2000s. Drawing on the dominance of hip hop in the mainstream music industry, films such as Save the last dance, Honey, and Step up combined the teen film genre’s typical social problems and musical narratives, while other tensions were created by interweaving representations of post-industrial city youth with the utopian sensibilities of the classic Hollywood musical.
These narratives celebrated hip hop performance, and depicted dance as a bridge between cultural boundaries, bringing together couples, communities, and cultures, using hip hop to construct filmic spaces and identities while fragmenting hip hop soundscapes, limiting its expressive potential.
These attempts to marry the representational, narrative, and aesthetic meanings of hip hop culture with the form and ideologies of the musical film genre illuminate the tensions and continuities that arise from engagement with musicals’ utopian qualities.
This according to “Space, authenticity and utopia in the hip-hop teen dance film” by Faye Woods, an essay included in Movies, moves and music: The sonic world of dance films (Sheffield: Equinox, 2016, pp 61–77).
Above, a scene from Save the last dance; below, a scene from Honey.
In 1991 the celebrated singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso discussed the legacy of Carmen Miranda:
“She was a typical girl from Rio, born in Portugal, who, using a blatantly vulgar though elegant stylization of the characteristic baiana—Bahian dress—conquered the world and became the highest-paid woman in the United States. Carmen conquered white America as no other South American had done or ever would. She was the only representative of South America who was universally readable, and it is exactly because of this quality that self-parody became her inescapable prison.”
“Nevertheless, in 1967 Carmen Miranda reappeared as a central figure in our aesthetic concerns. A movement that came to be known as Tropicalismo appropriated her as one of its principal signs, capitalizing on the discomfort that her name and the evocation of her gestures could create. We had discovered that she was both our caricature and our X-ray, and we began to take notice of her destiny.”
“In Carmen’s day it was enough to make a percussive din that was recognizably Latin and Negroid. By bringing the musicians from Bando da Lua with her to the United States, however, she represented less the adulteration alleged by her critics than a pioneering role in a history that is still unfolding. It is the history of the relationship between a very rich music from a very poor country and musicians and audiences from the rest of the world.”
Quoted from “Caricature and conqueror, pride and shame” by Caetano Veloso (The New York times 20 October 1991).
Today is Miranda’s 110th birthday! Above, in 1941; below, performing in A date with Judy (yes, that’s 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the audience).
Related article: Tropicália and Bahia
The DJs and laptop performers of electronic dance music (EDM) use preexistent elements such as vinyl records and digital samples to create fluid, dynamic performances. These performances are also largely improvised, evolving in response to the demands of a particular situation through interaction with a dancing audience.
In performance, musicians make numerous spontaneous decisions about variables such as which sounds they will play, when they will play them, and how they will be combined with other sounds. Yet the elements that constitute these improvisations are also fixed in certain fundamental ways: Performances are fashioned from patterns or tracks recorded beforehand, and, in the case of DJ sets, these elements are also physical objects (vinyl records).
This according to Playing with something that runs: Technology, improvisation, and composition in DJ and laptop performance by Mark J. Butler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Above and below, “The Wizard” Jeff Mills, who provides a case study in the book.
BONUS: Mr. Mills performs in 2016.
In a recent interview, Dave Grohl discussed why he didn’t push for his own songs while he was drumming for Nirvana:
“I didn’t like my voice, I didn’t think I was a songwriter, and I was in a band with one of the greatest songwriters of our generation. I didn’t really want to rock the boat.”
“That’s the famous joke: What’s the last thing the drummer said before he got kicked out of the band? ‘Hey guys, I’ve got some songs I think we should play.’ So I just kind of kept it to myself.”
Following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, Grohl doubled down on his original work, resulting in the Foo Fighters’ eponymous debut the following year. At the time, he says, the project didn’t even feel like a proper record. “I just wanted to get up and go out and play something, even if nobody ever heard it,” he said. “Long before then, I had been recording songs of my own, and never letting anybody hear them, because I didn’t really think they were that good.”
This according to “See Dave Grohl explain why he didn’t write or sing in Nirvana” by Zoe Camp (Revolver 9 July 2018).
Today is Grohl’s 50th birthday! Above, performing in 2018; below, the Wasting light touring set from 2011.
Launched in 2017 at Birmingham City University, Riffs: Experimental writing on popular music offers a creative and experimental space for writing and thinking about popular music, in addition to an online forum for the publication and hosting of high caliber research in popular music studies.
The journal encourages written, audio, and visual contributions that experiment with the expected forms of academic communication. All papers are peer reviewed.
Below, Napalm Death, a group discussed in the inaugural issue.