Monday, June 4, 2012

Damn it.

Greg Tate

"Be always drunken.
Nothing else matters:
that is the only question.
If you would not feel
the horrible burden of Time
weighing on your shoulders
and crushing you to the earth,
be drunken continually.
Drunken with what?
With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.
But be drunken."
Charles Baudelaire
Paris Spleen

Peter Laughner: Baudelaire

Kinderland Zim, pt. 2

So... our boy just won himself the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is well-deserved, of course, because the accolade hasn't been invented that isn't well-deserved by the likes of Bob Dylan. If nothing else, we should reward him for having been correct all those years ago: as it turns out, maintaining an ironclad grasp on his own public persona was the way to go (if this were a good novel there would undoubtedly be ironic consequences for a lifetime of antsy micromanagement, but Dylan, better than most, appreciates the barely-passing resemblance between fiction and real life). Anyway, the rubes may be inclined to use this occasion to honor his protest singer days, but we here at KSM Central prefer a more sardonic view: that an actual protest singer would've used his moment on stage with Obama to bring up the kill list, and inquire whether our President's views on that subject were, to employ his own jargon, "evolving." (It is, after all, a subject that made the original top-ten list: number six with a bullet!)

The Fugs: The Ten Commandments

I mean, really now... a protest singer? The man was a writer of protest songs, no doubt. One of the best. Maybe even the best. And look, we can debate the true criteria for that noble profession up and down, and never see eye to eye. But I have to insist that, at a bare minimum, we agree that anyone who claims the protest singer mantle and is actually worth a damn has to actually, y'know... protest against something. The operative word there in italics. Conviction of one's own righteousness is rarely a pretty thing, but you do get points for guts. You also get the contempt of the other side, sometimes long after you've stopped performing, sometimes long after you've died. It does not, most assuredly, get you Presidential honorifics.

And what's more, I don't think Bob Dylan himself ever really cottoned to that title, and I don't mean Bob Dylan: eccentric septuagenarian, I mean Bob Dylan: hero of the revolution. The guy who rolled into New York City in 1961 as a cliché -- just one more rebellious kid with an acoustic guitar. On the outside. Of course, on the inside: the mind of a genius who would redefine songwriting forever. But maybe he didn't know that yet, and besides, no one starts out like that. So he gravitates to the folk scene, because rock 'n' roll is for sock hops, and jazz is for freaky hep-cats, and all the Beats (all the important ones, anyway) have moved to Paris. In that way, we're lucky. He could've just as easily tried to track down Allen Ginsberg as he did Woody Guthrie. ('course, Ginsberg probably takes one look at that spastic Midwestern haircut and thinks, "L7." And that's that.)

But track down Woody Guthrie he does, and strikes up a friendship with him, which in time becomes a cornerstone of the Bob Dylan mythology: the torch passed across generations, from one legend to another. And we know this because Dylan tells us -- a relentless campaign of self-promotion -- about the Woody/Bob connection, regularly citing Guthrie as his personal hero before performing his songs on stage. There are also written tributes, like Song to Woody on his 1962 debut album, and Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, a poem he reads at NYC's Town Hall in 1963. 

Bob Dylan: Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie [live]

That may sound like an epitaph, until you realize that Woody didn't shuffle off until 1967. So "last thoughts" in this case mean something else, and I wonder if they signify a kind of public breakup, because right around that point is when Dylan's star kicked its ascendancy into overdrive, and being Woody's protégé wasn't exactly necessary anymore. Remember: Bob Dylan circa '61 has the burgeoning talent, the voice, the drive, the guile -- everything but the one thing that folk music actually demands. No street cred. No one would ever mistake Bob Dylan as a man of the people. (For chrissakes, he named himself after a Welsh poet!) He could've gone out to Imperial Valley and played the picket line there, or sang outside a Greensboro Woolworth, but those kind of dues mean time and sweat and sometimes blood. And Woody Guthrie himself is just across the river in Brooklyn State Hospital, and catching the subway to East Flatbush is almost the same as riding the rails hobo-style (just like his hero!), and anyway, the official biographers can edit that part later on.

This is not meant as cynicism. If Dylan's a huckster, then the entire '60s folk revival was a giant poseur racket. Any true artist puts his own ambitions first, and as we don't generally blame Picasso for abandoning figurative art, or Miles Davis for leaving bop behind, so should Dylan get the benefit of our doubt. But it's instructive to remember that at the same time he was publicly associating himself with Woody Guthrie, he was also debuting material like A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall. I think it's fair to wonder, as sincere and starry-eyed as he may have been on those visits to Woody, if he wasn't already keenly aware that, artistically, he was already light years beyond his mentor. And that very shortly, "protest singer" was gonna be completely worthless as a job description.

2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why this is in the slices. Could be it's there as a tribute to Sylvan Lake alum Suze Rotolo, who Dylan wrote it about. Could be it's just one of those tunes that Ira likes to sing (and as discussed earlier, the rare Dylan song that achieves RGS), so it made the cut. It's certainly one of his sweeter breakup songs, which, I guess, makes it a little more appropriate for Lower Seniors to sing than, say, Ballad in Plain D. But enough about Bob Dylan! Let's commence to talking about Elvis.

If anyone on the planet ever came close to "getting" Dylan, it had to be Elvis Presley. A young singer, a meteoric rise to superstardom, the pressure of fans with great expectations -- Dylan's practically the Jewish Elvis. (Hmmm... The King = extreme reverence for his mother, plus was regularly paired up with the original shiksa. On the other hand, fried PB-&-banana sandwiches only sound treif. Really, it's a toss-up.) There's an Elvis cover of Don't Think Twice, and we'll get to that, right after I set that up with his absolutely bee-yoo-taful version of Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

Not exactly Dylan's most famous work, I know. It didn't get an official release until his second greatest hits LP in 1971. But that performance is a live take from 1963, and it was enough of a staple of his at the time (plus there were bootleg copies even then) that it was known. It's a nice-enough tune about finding peace with one's true love. Within his own catalog, it's pretty forgettable, and in fact I always confuse it with Simon & Garfunkel's Kathy's Song, which almost certainly rips it off.

Elvis' version appears as a bonus cut on the 1966 Spinout soundtrack. That's merely the first awesome thing about it. (And it's one of the biggest disappointments of my life to discover that the song isn't actually in the movie.) The second awesome thing about it is that Elvis got into it after hearing Odetta's cover on her 1965 Odetta Sings Dylan album. In a million years, I would not have assumed Elvis Presley knew who Odetta was, let alone was familiar with her arrangements. The thing is, I've heard Odetta's version, and it's good. But it in no way prepares one for the smooth bluesy number that Elvis purrs forth like a sultry wildcat. When Dylan sings this, its the smart play: it's a bookish, mumbly high school kid penning a paean to romantic love right before his girl, who's clearly out of his league to begin with, calls it quits on him. When Elvis sings this, it's pure hormonal vibe on every twang, and never mind his lady who's swooning with every line, the girls two coffee houses over are groovin' on the contact high. And just imagine the teeny-bopper who picked up the Spinout LP for grade-A Elvis crap like Adam and Evil or Beach Shack, and then got waylaid by this scorcher. Yowza! (And Dylan knew it, 'cause he told Rolling Stone in 1969 that it was his fave cover of any of his songs.)

Elvis Presley: Tomorrow Is a Long Time

Skip ahead a few years. 1973 Elvis is thicker and crabbier and doesn't give a crap. He's in his Vegas phase, during which his recorded output is not exactly inspiring. 1973 Elvis would not -- could not -- have recorded Tomorrow Is a Long Time, and made it hum like that. But '66 EP wouldn't have known what to do with Don't Think Twice, whereas it fits '73 EP like a velvet glove. To be sure, this is not stellar material. Elvis is clearly over-enamored with the "rooster crows" chorus, so much so that he sings it four-and-a-half times. He also skips the middle two verses, conveniently the ones where the singer suggests his own stake in the relationship (and thus hints at his own culpability in its deterioration). With those out of the picture, the song becomes kind of a faux-classy-sounding way to tell your ex to blow off, which, one imagines, is almost certainly the mood Elvis was trying to strike. It's not difficult to picture him doing a twelve-minute on-stage version of this, with a dozen-or-so rooster choruses, each one a nasty little morsel of bitterness to be savored. (By Elvis. Not necessarily by anyone else.) Oddly enough, '73 BD, just starting to write Blood on the Tracks, may have thought about this what '66 BD once thought about Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

Elvis Presley: Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

Against type, I'm not exactly comfortable leaving this post with bitter '70s Elvis, so I'll hit you with one more cover. A few years ago, the rapper K'naan -- whose take on With God on Our Side is one of the better tracks on the Amnesty comp -- teamed up with producer J.Period to create The Messengers, a remix project paying tribute to Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Dylan. Good stuff, most of it, and I particularly dug this remix of Don't Think Twice, which makes good use of sampling the original song to paint a broader retrospective of the artist. Props to the end, which presents a few different takes on Dylan's fame (including his own, and Ronnie Gilbert's) without attempting to draw any definitive conclusions. The Messengers can be (legally) downloaded in it's entirety (for free!) here.

J.Period & K'naan:
Don't Think Twice [messengers remix]

Next time: the Jester.

Peace & Vinyl,
The KassaNostra

CODA: The revolution will not (not) be commodified! Occupy This Album, another venti-sized comp project, went on sale a couple weeks ago. Among the featured 99 artists (seriously) is Kinderland-alum all-star badass supergroup Black Dragon, deftly blending a Phil Ochs sample into the middle of some deep bass grooves. I'd give you the link to buy a copy, but that'd be sooooo one percent (nah, just kiddin').

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kinderland Zim, pt. 1

First of all, a hearty Sholem Aleichem to the multitudes of Jewish Currents readers who are here because of Nick Jarh's very flattering blog post about me. As he mentioned, I, the KassaNostra, serve as host of this modest cavalcade of musical idiosyncrasies, and all are as welcome here as a hobo on Pesach. A quick point of reference, if I may: this is a blog about music particular to Camp Kinderland and its extended mispocheh. That matters not a lick as to the accessibility of the music, but a lot of my prose tends to lean inside rather than out. At some point, I'll probably add a glossary of terms to the site (especially since I often get the feeling that no one knows what the hell I'm talking about anyway). Comments are accepted and encouraged, tho' practice would suggest nobody really believes that. Pity. 

* * *

By now, I assume all of you own, or have heard of, or are lusting after, Amnesty International's four-disc Bob Dylan tribute, Chimes of Freedom. 72 cover songs from a variety of artists ranging from Miley Cyrus to Pete Seeger, with the only real surprise being that Cyrus out-performs Seeger (and at this point, it's not all that big a surprise). Chimes is but the latest entry on a list of Dylan tribute albums -- a list so copious, the category has its own Wikipedia page. Now usually, this kind of overexposure tends to stick in the KassaNostra's craw, but really, in this case, it fits. Bob Dylan emerged on the scene fifty years ago and began confounding expectations almost immediately. Over the years he's changed his public persona enough times to make David Bowie blush. That there might be a single lens through which to view his career is an idea as obsolete as the Kingston Trio. So for once, a little gluttony isn't too bad a deal.

On the whole, Chimes mostly works, wisely steering clear of any real organizing principle in favor of an unpredictable hodgepodge of songs and artists that often sounds like they sequenced the tracks by shuffling them in iTunes. (And I mean that in a good way.) (Although I would like to know which genius programmed the Kronos Quartet immediately after Ke$ha, playing the same exact song? Pretentious gits.) But the truth is, a project like this is virtually unreviewable, too big and too diverse to be captured in a single evaluation. No individual person can possibly be expected to like every track. In that way it's emblematic of the vast ocean of Dylan covers floating around the ether: for every Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower, or Nico's I'll Keep It with Mine, there's also, say, Sebastian Cabot's reading of Like a Rolling Stone, which I happen to think is the most pointless cover song in the history of cover songs, but which may be the bee's knees for someone else, for all I know. Anyway, there's a lot out there. Got a fave? Let me know about it.

Me, I keep trying to get my head around the Kinderland relation-ship to Dylan, assuming there even is one. Only four of his songs have been deemed slice-worthy, which at first seems painfully low, until you think about it. Dylan as an artist did not generally embrace what Ira calls "reasonable group singability," even during his earlier protest song period. Tunes like Masters of War or With God on Our Side would have to be seriously rearranged to fit into a music circle. And that doesn't even begin to address the lyrical complexity that often keeps his oeuvre out of reach of the dirty hands of us mere mortals.

But there's something else afoot here. When people talk about Dylan breaking with the folk music crowd, they're generally talking about us. Not because the wag who cried out "Judas!" at Albert Hall was Ruby Holtzman or anything, but because inasmuch as we define ourselves through our heroes, it was those heroes who, this time, ended up on the wrong side of history. And make no mistake, it was the wrong side. Even Pete Seeger has taken to revisionism, weakly insisting his infamous attempt to take an ax to Dylan's sound system at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was out of concern for the audience hearing the lyrics through the static.

History, we are told, is written by the victors. It's worth noting, however, that in this instance, there's one very key person clearly not doing a touchdown dance in our end zone. Dylan didn't abandon the folkies so much as he abandoned everybody, which may have been his chosen trajectory all along. In his wake, an audience of self-proclaimed acolytes has codified that moment as the Great Schism of '65, and made sure to let everyone know they stand with Bob on the right side of history. Which, fair enough, may be the case. But make no mistake: Dylan sure as hell didn't invite them along for the ride, and that makes them and their proclamations, in the grand scheme of things, the equivalent of whale lice. In the story of Bob Dylan, American legend, no one gets a free pass. And all the puritans have rightly been named as such. But in an epic as long and meandering as this one, with whole swathes that we admittedly will never fully understand, the character who reaches for the hatchet, right or wrong, is always more credible than the one who straps on the kneepads. And that makes the story ripe for a little reexamination.

We'll explore the Dylan-Tolland connection down the road aways, but for now, lesstalkmoremusic! Because, of course, all of this a flimsy excuse to post a lot of awesome Dylan cover tunes. None from Chimes, tho' -- those are still a little new to have made a lasting impact (even Miley Cyrus). I figure we'll give each of the four slice songs their own post, plus some bonus stuff, because lord knows there's so damn much of it. And thank goodness for that.

1. Blowin' in the Wind

Let's not split hairs: it's a sappy song. It lacks the acrimony, conviction or humor that makes the rest of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan such a dynamite album. It combines the self-righteousness of a protest song with the emptiness of a feel-good pop anthem. Dylan himself says it took him ten minutes to write, and it sounds it, swiping the melody of the spiritual No More Auction Block, a song possessed of the kind of courage that Blowin' in the Wind can only dream about.

But... to call its 1963 release earth-shattering would be to undersell the moment. Simply put: in the history of recorded music, there had been nothing like it before. Folk songs of the Woody/Pete variety are an invention of 20th century activism, marrying movement-friendly lyrics with authentic sounding acoustical music (as opposed to more lavishly-arranged corporate pop). Even the best of them were written and meant as propaganda. And then Bob Dylan came along and monkey-wrenched the whole model. If Blowin' in the Wind is vague because of It's rhetorical nature, it's also timeless in a way that sacrifices none of its relevance. And at the time, nobody else was anywhere near thinking like that.

I would never presume any insight into Dylan's motives, but I'll bet the farm he knew all along he was writing an anthem. Freewheelin' was released in May 1963, but he had been performing Blowin' in the Wind live for a year before that, and it had already been published in both Broadside and Sing Out! As to its first recorded release, The Chad Mitchell Trio may carry the day here, on their In Action LP, if in fact that came out in March '63 (there's conflicting evidence). In any case, Dylan's single on Columbia (August '63) was beaten to the punch by Peter, Paul & Mary's on Warner Bros. (June '63), who had an immediate smash hit with it. That's a lot of exposure for a song so closely associated with it's creator (although that may have been par for the course in the ethos of the NYC folk club scene of the early '60s -- I just don't know). And I think it's a fair guess that, in appropriating a spiritual, Dylan meant for it to be a song in the populist tradition that both the folk revival and the Civil Rights Movement were turning to for inspiration. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall is a far more poignant song, but less accessible. If PP&M had performed that at the March on Washington instead of Blowin' in the Wind, no one would remember it today.

The thing about an anthem is that everybody covers it, but picking Stevie Wonder's 1966 Tamla single is a no-brainer. Stevie, naturally, could sing the camp packing list and make it soar. What I really like about his take, besides how he returns the song to its spiritual roots, is the sense of familiarity he sings into it. The rhetorical questions don't sound particularly rhetorical here; they sound joyous, almost casually so. And why not? By '66 the Civil Rights Movement had tangible victories to celebrate. The lyrical queries get turned on their ear, no longer deriving strength from their ambiguity. Instead, Wonder makes it a hymn, something that everyone can recognize and can revel in. The answers are no longer the point. But understanding that we have the strength to ask the questions is cause for celebration.

Stevie Wonder: Blowin' in the Wind

And as an added bonus, with Cinco de Mayo so recent in our rearview mirrors, I'm gonna throw in Nina Simone's cover of Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, one of three Dylan covers off her 1969 LP To Love Somebody. At the risk of making an entirely unoriginal observation, the song, ostensibly about a Mexican jaunt gone sour, is an entirely different jewel in Simone's care. In the song, weary from all the deviance he encounters and feeling abandoned, the narrator gives in and returns home: "I'm going back to New York City/I do believe I've had enough." But it's instructive to remember that when Dylan recorded it, for 1965's Highway 61 Revisited, it was at the apex of his ascent. The sneering contempt with which he sings it -- practically his hallmark during this period -- is an affectation of his own success. His ultimate retreat to the safety of home, and even the entire trip in the first place, are luxuries afforded him by his success. And the solitary state he finds himself in at the end is at least a product of his own design. (Just so we're clear, it's a brilliant tune, in both writing and execution.)

But what Dylan takes for granted, Simone was struggling to find. She routinely chafed against conditions Dylan couldn't possibly ever relate to (what she felt were expectations on her race and gender, an abusive marriage, what is now considered to likely have been a bipolar disorder), and some which he probably could (struggling to define herself as an artist on her own terms). She approaches Tom Thumb's Blues with a chilling despondency, singing it with a softness -- almost a tenderness -- for the adversities holding her down. It is the song of a battered woman, and when, just before the last verse, she ad libs, "Well, that's it folks," you can't help but wonder if you're listening to some kind of last confession; if it's even possible for an artist to take their own life on vinyl. It's one of the saddest songs I've ever come across, and she knew it, because she sequenced it as the penultimate song on the album, followed by a rousing cover of The Times They Are a-Changin', that's religious and triumphant and steeped in gravitas, and can't help but sound like a complete phony following the personal ordeal that precedes it.

Nina Simone: Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

Sorry to leave on such a blue note. We'll go upbeat next time, and look to the King to get us there.

Peace & Vinyl,
The KassaNostra

Monday, April 30, 2012

Although technically, "Knickerbocker Go Home" might be more correct...

So, yes, I really, really have returned. But we're keeping things streamlined this time around. No more bonus ancillary stuff. No more Facebook (already deactivated the account). Subscriptions and updates stay for now, but maybe I'll toss those as well. Don't even ask me about tweeting. We're simplifying. Sorry if that inconveniences anyone (not really). We cool? Great. Let's get to the music. I have two years to make up, after all.

There's no that much I can tell you about Tina Sizwe (alternately: Thina Sizwe/Mabayeke/Mayibuye). It's not in the slices proper, what with it being a choral number all the way. Pete Seeger says the music is from a hymn, but doesn't specify which one. The lyrics are in Zulu, and the song is mostly associated with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, although nothing in the song is specifically regional. Basically, it's "Yankee go home" expressed as sublimely as you'll ever hear it. 

Side B, Band 5: Thina Sizwe

That version's off a 1966 Folkways comp album, This Land Is Mine. No performer info for this or any other song: "They were all recorded... by young people who are refugees from South Africa... Some have death sentences hanging over their heads... For this reason no photographs of them could be taken." Presumably, that also goes for the no-names policy in the liner notes. (One assumes, anyway. Not to make light, but Folkways was notoriously wretched at providing basic info like that across its catalog.) The album, which also includes Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika, has is own folksy charm, but, well... there's a reason we usually buy records made by professional singers. Just prior to its release, Mary-Louise Hooper organized a South African benefit at Hunter College, which included Martin Luther King, Jr., Seeger and Miriam Makeba among its participants. Just a guess, but there's a strong likelihood that This Land Is Mine was rushed out to capitalize on nascent anti-apartheid sentiments.

By that time, the song had already been a part of Seeger's repertoire for several years. After her deportation from South Africa in the late 1950s, Hooper passed along a tape of ANC fight songs to Seeger, and in 1960 Folkways released a four-song EP, South African Freedom Songs, which also include Asikatali. Most likely, this is the first widespread exposure (relatively speaking) of either song to Western audiences. Along with Seeger, the makeshift choir includes Guy Carawan (the man who taught We Shall Overcome to SNCC), and several members of the Belafonte Folk Singers, including Garrett Morris. Yeah, that Garrett Morris:

Man, sometimes life is just too awesome for words.

Pete Seeger, Robert Harter, Garrett Morris,
Guy Carawan & Ned Wright: Tina Sizwe

Anyway, permit me a few thoughts:

  • If anyone out there knows anything about the song's history, definitely get in touch. I'm dying to know how a song whose basic sentiment is "Africa for the Africans" ended up attached to a Western song structure. The incongruity is killing me. (Assuming that's even correct. Are there Bantu hymns? C'mon people, educate me.)
  • On the 1960 EP, the song's title is translated as "We, the Brown Nation." On the 1966 LP (remember, same label), the translation is "We the Africans." Ladies and gentlemen, the Civil Rights Movement: alive and paying dividends!
  • If you get a chance, the EP's liner notes are worth a read. A decade earlier, Seeger (along with The Weavers) released Wimoweh, and was ultimately criticized both for butchering (and politicizing) that tune in his attempt at a translation, and for assuming it was a public-domain folk song. (It was actually written by Solomon Linda, whose family spent years trying to recoup lost royalties.) Perusing the notes, I assume the considerable attention paid to the Zulu pronunciations, as well as royalties distribution, are signs of Pete having learned from past mistakes. So bully for him.
  • I didn't know anything about Mary-Louise Hooper before researching this post. As it turns out, hers is a fascinating story -- the kind that usually earns one an Olympic team in their honor. But the novelty of the Garrett Morris connection had me so jazzed up on the unpredictability of the universe that for a week I convinced myself she was actually enigmatic NOLA soul spitfire Mary Jane Hooper. Now those odds coming through would've blown my head...

Mary Jane Hooper: I've Got Reasons

Finally, there are a number of versions of Tina Sizwe floating around, but I'm not crazy about most of 'em, which usually throw modern embellishments into the choral arrangement. Usually I appreciate that kind of thing, but not with this tune. Maybe because it's a product of its times. The song itself, while of great historical import, no longer speaks to the current socio-political situation in South Africa (or Africa as a whole for that matter). Modern performances are fine, but messing with the arrangement would be like adding glissandos to We Shall Overcome: pointless on the merits; even more so because that song evokes a specific era of struggle, and doesn't necessarily travel well outside that frame. 

Or maybe I just think all those other versions are serious crapola compared to this cut from Harry Belafonte, which strips the original of its dirge-like solemnity and makes it something else entirely. I honestly can't tell you what that something else is, except that it's celebratory and light-hearted and utterly amazing. It's the kind of arrangement someone might apply long after the fact -- after struggle begats victory, begats remembrance, begats nostalgia -- except that Belafonte recorded this in 1965, in the middle of an ocean of struggle with no land in sight. It's something only a true master of the craft would ever attempt: to infuse a song so heavy and august with his own wide-open optimism, and to do it with so much panache that the Zulu practically reveals itself as a long lost romance language. 

Harry Belafonte: Mabayeke

We the brown nation
We cry for our country
That was taken by the white people
They must leave our land alone
They must leave our land alone

We, the children of Africa
Are crying for Africa
That was taken by the white people
They must leave our land alone
They must leave our land alone

Peace & Vinyl,
The KassaNostra

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reports of My Drek Were Hardly Exaggerated

So... anyone miss me?

Yeah, me neither.

More to follow. Halevei...

John Wesley Harding
Talking Return of the Great Folk Scare Blues [live]

Peace & Vinyl,
The KassaNostra

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gimmie a Slice with Everything...

Got the final word from Ira at the top of the week. The new slice will have five songs, none of them suggested via this blog:

  • Vi Lang
  • Lomir Undzer Shul Bagrisn
  • The Loco-motion
  • It's My Party
  • You Won't See Me
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed, both because we got blanked, and also by what the inclusion of these particular songs represents. (But not the songs themselves. For what it's worth, I think they're all quality tunes.) I should mention that Ira and I have been emailing back and forth for the past couple of months, and he gave me a few early notices that this was probably what the slice was going to look like. I would also ask people to remember that teaching the music involves a whole other set of criteria that doesn't necessarily jive with how you and I select our faves.

Having said that, it's hard not to look at these tunes and wonder if this particular playlist isn't already on file somewhere in the back of Maddy's House. Loco-motion is the fifth Goffin/King song in the slices; You Won't See Me is the twelfth Beatles song (eleven Lennon/McCartney's, one Harrison, in case you're keeping track). And while I'm hardly qualified to challenge the inclusion of the two Yiddish songs (and Vi Lang is a particular favorite), without a solid cultural context propping them up, I'm a little skeptical as to how much play they'll actually get.

There's a much larger debate in play here, one that's been going on (albeit quietly and civilly) for some time now. Given the limited resources camp has to work with, what's the best way to keep the cultural program from drifting towards irrelevance? It's a very difficult issue to grapple with; even more so where music is concerned. There are so many questions for which there are simply no good answers. Case in point: over the last 20 years, many of the artists whose lyrics advocate the kind of radicalism championed at Kinderland (i.e.: Public Enemy, Ani DiFranco, Rage Against the Machine) perform in ways that are not at all conducive to a group sing-along model. If at some point contemporary music is added to the slices, then how to address the absence of so many relevant voices? And if those artists are being excluded for the sake of practicality (no small consideration in a setting like camp), then what does make the cut? Would anybody really be satisfied if the last 30 years of protest music were represented with songs like Billy Joel's Allentown or U2's Pride (In the Name of Love)?

Anyway, this is a much heavier discussion than I'm willing to have right now. We here at Kinderslice Music do not see our mission as standing athwart the Tolland canon, yelling STOP. Especially not when there're awesome tunes to be spun. I don't particularly care what Ira thinks; you guys came up with some truly awesome selections, and I want to use this final pre-camp post to showcase some of the ones I thought were especially aces. A week from now, in some undiscovered parallel universe, the Inters will have their first music period of the summer, and no song will be impossible... that's the KassaNostra's dream, anyway: a slice with everything, as it were.

So first of all, let's talk about the Indigo Girls. I've never really been a fan. In fact, my formative camp years coincided with their biggest releases, and the memories of overzealous rendition after overzealous rendition of Closer to Fine still haunt me. (Rule of thumb, people: the more you like a band, the more the person sitting next to you probably doesn't.) But I will gladly prostrate myself to the higher mind for the right of any folk artist to ditch the psychobabble and write a kick-ass rocker, and with that in mind, I really, really like Dane's suggestion of Shame on You, the lead single off of 1997's Shaming of the Sun. Of all the proposed new tunes, I think this one would be the most fun to actually sing (or even better, walk past a group of eleven-year-olds tearing through it). The social relevance factor is off the charts, even as this country's attitudes towards undocumented aliens get stupider by the minute. And for those of you unfamiliar with Chicano Park, check it out – it gives the Paul Robeson Playhouse a run for its money. Really, sixty-something years after the fact, this song would be the perfect bookend for Woody Guthrie's Deportee. Nice choice, Dane. And I say that as someone who would just as soon avoid a Nomads Indians Saints revival. Be worth it, 'tho, if it got this number into the canon.

Indigo Girls: Shame on You

Next up, a private request by little Nicky Jahr for Billy Bragg's personal anthem, Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards (from 1988's Workers Playtime). Much like the Indigo Girls, comrade Bragg is one of those artists who'd be a natural for Kinderland icon status, if only his timing were a little better. A quick perusal at an actual copy of the slices reveals that the earliest entries (pgs. 1-26) are mostly pulled from Rise Up Singing, which also came out in 1988. Consequently, anyone who started hitting their stride in the late 80s gets the shaft. (Far as I can tell, the most recently released song in the slices is Gerry Tenney's New Underground Railroad: self-released in 1985, with a wider release on Holly Near & Ronnie Gilbert's 1987 LP Singing with You.) I only point this out because Bragg is the rare artist who effortlessly mixes sarcasm, incurable romanticism, unabashedly progressive politics, and an amiable outlook on everything. "You can be active with the activists/Or sleep in with the sleepers." It's more than just a lyric; it's an ethos. Sometimes I still can't believe we let this dude slip through the cracks.

Billy Bragg: Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

And for those of you stymied by the cold war-heavy lyrics, here's Bragg in 2007, with an updated version. Note that we're still waiting for that great leap. Note also that the waiting is still the best part.

And now, your indulgence, please, while I take care of some mea culpa business.

To the anonymous wag who asked me in back January about the Maddy Simon/Tomoyuki Tanaka connection: sir... madam... I sincerely beg your forgiveness. The KassaNostra has few rules, but one of the biggies is, "don't take the readers for granted." And yet that's exactly what I did in your case, writing off your legitimate query as a facetious attempt for a quick laugh. It shames me that I took this long to attempt to make things right, but here goes: I'm Bruce utilizes the melody of what Kinderlanders recognize as the qua-qua-qua-qua-quarter song that Maddy has been teaching for decades. I can't locate a source for that specific version of that song. Gershwin includes the melody as a brief part of An American in Paris in 1928. Different versions of it – all substituting bubblegum for the class warfare angle – have turned up. Ella Fitzgerald cut a version with Chick Webb in 1939 (on the Decca label). Dean Martin (Capitol), Teresa Brewer (London) and the Andrews Sisters (Decca) all released it in 1950. That there are different versions (with different writers) suggests it really was a traditional song in the public domain long before any of these artists ever got to it. But that melody has been ubiquitous throughout, so there are a number of sources for it that FPM could've tapped. Again, profuse apologies, and a request for your patience: I'm gonna need a little time to dig into this Ugly Casanova mishegas.

Meanwhile, the Brother of KassaNostra (who also shall remain anonymous) (and who, this one time only, shall be dubbed the KassaBROstra), sent me a whole list of suggestions, many of which were of the old-timey variety. You read through the slices long enough, you sometimes forget that people just singing about getting through their troubles with a smile can be a stronger act of insurgency than singing about revolution in the streets (hell, that could practically be Woody Guthrie's epitaph). But those old-timey-ers knew it. They laughed at the Titanic going down, reveled in train derailments, and sang wistfully of their weariness. You do that with enough feeling, and you don't even have to tack on a join-the-union chorus. There's a reason that songs like Midnight Special, Do-Re-Mi and Dark as a Dungeon are camp standards. Hank Williams might very well turn in his grave if we ever put him in the slices, but I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is, plain and simple, one of the best songs ever written. And Gillian Welch has a catalog full of tunes about the ravaging effects of poverty –Tear My Stillhouse Down, One More Dollar, Red Clay Halo, etc. etc. However, I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll, off of 2001's Time (The Revelator), is more fun to sing, and hits on a Kinderland maxim if ever there was one: sometimes you gotta want to shout to be heard. Thanks, Butch. Keep lookin' out for them pumas.

Hank Williams: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive

Gillian Welch: I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll [live]

San Jose Sam gets to be president of my West Coast fan club for life for sending me this suggestion: Tom Robinson's Glad to Be Gay (a lost classic off his Rising Free... EP from 1978). In post-Sex Pistols England, the Tom Robinson Band bridged the gap between punk and new wave, challenging the ennui of the former and the apathy of the latter with songs about politics and social justice as their rallying cry. Robinson – who was open about his orientation for the entirety of his career (although he now classifies himself as bisexual) – wrote the song for a London pride parade. The EP reached #18 in the UK, despite the song being banned by the BBC. This is a great song, and a great choice for the slices, as it attacks both anti-gay bigotry and the complacency of those who allow it to happen. It's amazing (and a little depressing) how many of the lyrics are still relevant today.

Tom Robinson Band: Glad to Be Gay [live]

I'm going to end with a suggestion of my own, although a couple of different people have also mentioned it to me since I started this blog. In a growing field of old-timey Americana bands, Old Crow Medicine Show is just plain weird. Every time I read an interview with lead singer Ketch Secor I feel like I'm listening to the kid of the banjo guy from Deliverance. But they've covered Union Maid and Deportee, and played the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And they wrote I Hear Them All, which might be the best protest anthem of the last decade. Much like Bragg's Great Leap Forwards, this isn't about a specific issue or event, but rather encapsulates the worth of progressive values, and does it beautifully. And I cannot possibly say enough about that last verse, which connects the song to imagery – biblical prophets and the welcome table – that was a staple of spirituals, and eventually spread into c&w by way of groups like the Carter Family. It's a ringing reminder that social justice as a concept and a practice has been a regular part of American culture for decades.

Old Crow Medicine Show: I Hear Them All

Enjoy your summer, people. You guys are the best... all both of you. And remember: the KassaNostra loves you, even when you are singing It's My Party.

Peace & Vinyl,
The KassaNostra

CODA: Kinderland opens on July 4th this summer, which I always remember as having been a little awkward when I was a camper. Not a lot of overly-patriotic music in the canon, at least not the way the rest of America might cotton. I do remember a lot of Wasn't That a Time being sung, but on a couple of occasions, Maddy threw us a curveball and hit us with Riflemen of Bennington, a Revolutionary War era number about killin' redcoats. I'm guessing she picked it up from Pete Seeger, but I prefer this 1975 version by a trio calling themselves The Committee of Correspondence, who specialized in period songs (this appeared on a Folkways LP, The American Revolution in Song and Ballad). Never mind for a second that it's a great tune. At a time when the Tea Party movement acts like it has a monopoly on patriotism, this serves as a gut-check to the contrary. The three members of the Committee grace the album's back cover in revolutionary-era costume, and go on to thank Irwin Silber in the liner notes. Glen Beck would have an aneurysm!

The Committee of Correspondence:
Riflemen of Bennington