Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In memoriam: Klaus Dinger

Brian Eno once said that "there were three great beats in the 70´s. Fela Kuti's Afrobeat, James Brown's funk, and Klaus Dinger's Neu! beat." He was right of course. The Neu! beat, a single and minimalist 4/4, was also called the motorik beat, although Dinger later referred to it as the Apache beat for some reason. Its groove was highly influential on artists as diverse as Hawkwind, David Bowie, Public Image Ltd. and almost everyone working in the electronica and/or ambient scene. Hallogallo, a prime example of Neu!´s krautrock genius, comes from their selftitled debut (´72). Way ahead of its time.

In Memoriam: Odetta

Born on New Year’s Eve in 1930, Odetta would have been 78 today. And had she lived a few weeks beyond this, she would have realized her last dream, to sing at Barak Obama’s inauguration. When I think of Odetta, I think of three things: spirituals, the Civil Rights Movement, and that voice.

Odetta: Muleskinner‘s Blues


As a child, Odetta loved to sing, The first music she was exposed to, and her original inspiration for singing, was the music of the black church. And somewhere in her journey through life, she also heard the blues. A musically astute bystander, overhearing her at the age of ten, advised Odetta’s mother to wait until she was thirteen, and then start her on classical voice lessons. The lessons lasted for several years, and help shape this amazing instrument. It was at age twenty that Odetta first heard folk music, and fell in love with it.

Odetta: Spiritual Trilogy: Oh Freedom, Come and Go With Me, I‘m on My Way


Odetta’s spirituality was tied up in everything she did. Her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement certainly fit in with this. Many of her gigs at first were at civil rights demonstrations. One of her proudest achievements was singing “Oh Freedom” at the demonstration in Washington where Martin Luther King Delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Odetta: Blues Everywhere I Go


After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Civil Rights Movement began to split into factions, each of which believed that it knew the best way to continue the fight. For Odetta, this meant that it became harder to find the types of gigs she was used to. So, as she sought ways to expand her audience, she tried to broaden her sound. “Blues Everywhere I Go” is the title track from an album recorded late in her career, which paid tribute to female blues singers who had inspired Odetta. It is the only time I know of that she “plugged in”.

But, no matter what she sang, it was still Odetta. She was still the owner of that amazing voice. In her hands, even secular songs became expressions of the human spirit. And so they remain, even now that she is gone.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Memoriam: Eddy Arnold

In perusing the list of musicians who passed on this year, I feel grateful in saying that, although I mourn the loss of all who passed from this earth in 2008 (some entirely too early), I didn't feel the impact of any nearly so much as I did for Dave Carter in 2002 or Rachel Bissex in 2005.

Then I scanned the list again and sustained a sucker punch to the gut – oh my god... Eddy Arnold...

I'd like to think I'm too young (even at the age of 54) to have been personally invested in his music – however, a secondhand ripple effect can be just as impactful. I've spoken before of my father's role in my love of music – I'd be an entirely different person today if he hadn't taught me the art of active listening. My father would sit... me... down... and explain to me, in musical and literary terms, why what I was about to hear was so meaningful – I do that today... to my kids, my friends... and anyone who, in conversation, sparks a memory/jumping-off point requiring a particular song be played, right then and there...

So it was with Eddy Arnold's Cattle Call, which I probably heard 100 times over the course of my childhood – the recording was half-ode, half-lament to the cowboy, with an accompanying yodel that was both joy-filled and mournful. Easy to visualize the “brown-as-a-berry", lonesome hero rounding up bovines – the tune would later become my mental soundtrack the first time I read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove decades later...

Eddy Arnold: Cattle Call


Thanks for the memories, Dad – hope you've finally had the chance to tell Eddy face-to-face (or a reasonable heavenly facsimile) how much you loved his tune...

P.S. I've just come from the hospice bedside of Vic Heyman who, although not a musician, can certainly be credited with major support for many folk musicians in the form of reviewing, promoting and financing various music projects (most notably Remembering Rachel) – Vic and his wife Reba have been coming to South Florida in the winter for years (at first for a week at a time which has now extended to a four-month stay) when Vic took a turn for the worse last week. Reba and their daughter Judy are sitting vigil, after having disconnected the ventilator a few days ago – I brought them tangerines, stayed a few hours chatting and had an opportunity to say my goodbyes, staying strong while there and weeping all the way home.

...which brings us back to Rachel Bissex, who wrote this song, from her final recording In White Light, about Vic and Reba...

Rachel Bissex: Just Like That


...which segues to Dave Carter's brilliantly poetic unfolding of transition, the only somber banjo tune of which I'm aware...

Dave Carter (with Tracy Grammer): When I Go


...which reminds me of Mary Chapin Carpenter's song describing "that thin chiffon wave", the title of which came from Tracy Grammer's ("his partner in all things") description of Dave's passing...

Mary Chapin Carpenter: Between Here and Gone


"The deep pain that is felt at the death of every friendly soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost." ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Monday, December 29, 2008

In Memoriam: Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt: C'est Si Bon


She made her mark on pop culture as a particularly slinky Catwoman, and her 1953 Santa Baby set the standard for sultry in the Christmas canon. But dancer/actress/singer Eartha Mae Kitt was no pussycat: even in her softer moments, her claws were visible just under that paper-thin kitchy-coo exterior.

Conceived of rape on a South Carolina cotton plantation, raised by a woman who may or may not have been her mother, Kitt's anger at the world was her driving force. The bitterness got her in trouble, at times; most notably, her US career lost steam in the late sixties when her anti-war statements at a White House luncheon made Lady Bird Johnson cry. But she soldiered on, turning to the international community, reinventing herself for new audiences, most notably the burgeoning mid-eighties gay Disco revival, even as she held fast to her core persona.

Her later work on the cabaret circuit is known for a witty, weary ferocity; her aptest roles in this era included a stint as the wicked Kaa the snake in a BBC radio production of the Jungle Book, and a turn on the North American tour of The Wizard of Oz as the Wicked Witch of the West. But it is this 1963 recording which I always come back to, a movie song which hit #11 on the Cash Box charts. She sounds so happy, so young, so voracious, so full of promise. After a lifetime of hardship, I like to think it's how she would want to be remembered.

In Memoriam: Miriam Makeba

Patriotism is defined as “love of country”. Miriam Makeba understood this well. Raised in the traditions of her father’s Xhosa tribe in South Africa, Makeba was 16 when the Apartheid regime came to power. She began to sing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers, who combined traditional vocal techniques with the vocal stylings of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. As her popularity grew, Makeba was able to form her own group, the Skylarks. Makeba used her increasing popularity to speak to an ever widening audience in South Africa about the evils of Apartheid. Finally, her popularity enabled Makeba to become a solo artist. Her hit “Pata Pata” began to bring her international attention, and the opportunity to tour outside of her native land. This would prove to be an important turning point in her life and career.

Miriam Makeba: Pata Pata


While Miriam Makeba was on an international tour in 1960, the government of South Africa revoked her passport, which barred her from returning to her native land for what would prove to 30 years. Harry Belefonte became one of her champions, helping her to gain an audience in the United States, and her popularity globally allowed her to continue recording and touring the world. She began to adopt a more international repertoire, but she always mixed in the influence of the traditions of her native land, and she never lost the desire to return home.

Miriam Makeba: I Long to Return


In the late 1960s, Makeba married the Black Panther leader Stokely Charmichael. Makeba related the American civil rights movement to the struggle for freedom in her homeland, and she could not be uninvolved while she lived here. But Charmichael was a controversial figure, and Makeba found that the relationship hurt her career. Suddenly, offers to perform in the United States began to dry up. Even in countries sympathetic to the United States, Makeba found that work was harder to come by. So, when Charmichael fled the US, and settled in Guinea, she went with him.

In Guinea, Makeba absorbed the influence of the local music, and incorporated it into what she was doing. She continued to work against Apartheid, and for freedom, wherever she went. For this work, she briefly became Guinea’s ambassador to the United Nations. “Amampondo” is an example of her music from this period.

Miriam Makeba: Amampondo


And so it went. She went wherever fortune took her, and always she sang. She never considered her songs political; she sang of her life. And she always put some of where she was into her work, but she never forgot where she came from. In 1989, Paul Simon invited her to join the Graceland tour. It was the first time she had worked with other South African musicians in many years. Simon was accused of “cultural imperiailism”, of coopting a foreign musical style. But, for Makeba, this was more of what she had always done. It was a way of bringing the music of her home to the world in a form that would be appreciated by the people she performed for wherever she was.

The next year, Apartheid in South Africa finally ended. Miriam Makeba could finally go home again. Her last few albums presented the traditional music she grew up with, and showed her catching up with the changes that South African music had gone through while she was gone.

Miriam Makeba: Ngalala Phantsi


This year, Makeba was asked to perform a concert in Italy, at a concert promoting the right to speak out against the Mafia. Of course, she went. On November 9, she collapsed on stage after performing “Pata Pata”. Not long after, she was gone. But the spirit of freedom lives on in her music.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Peace on Earth: Overjoyed

Christine Kane: Overjoyed


If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,

There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,

There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,

There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,

There must be peace in the heart. ~ Lao Tzu

In these few days post-Christmas and pre-New Year's, one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songwriters reminds me that peace (inner as well as global) is less about struggling and achieving and do-ing... and more about appreciating and accepting and be-ing - wishing you all the best in 2009 and beyond...

Peace on Earth: A Matter of Faith

Susan Werner: Together


On her album The Gospel Truth, Susan Werner wrestles with the question of religion. Much of the album is angry or bitter. The songs detail the hypocrisy of those preach hatred in the name of God, politicians who use religion to justify their wrong-headed policies, and also tell of Werner’s struggles with her own religious upbringing. But these struggles, and this venting, are not the last word. Werner concludes the album the song “Together”. Although the lyrics include the words, “if there is a God”, the song is nonetheless a prayer for tolerance. Coming at the end of this tumultuous album, it represents Werner’s reconciliation with her feelings about faith; she renounces the trappings of faith as she originally encountered them, but she holds to the moral values that her faith embodies.

Tracy Chapman: Heaven‘s Here on Earth


By contrast, Tracy Chapman’s songs have never revealed any doubts about her faith. She has detailed many personal struggles, as well as political actions, in her work, but these have always seemed like spiritual statements. “Heaven’s Here On Earth” makes this explicit. Chapman makes it clear that she does not wait for the Lord to provide a better life in the next world; rather, she believes that God expects us to make this world the best it can be for all who live upon it while we are here.

I do not presume in this post to offer any judgment as to how anyone should conduct their spiritual life. I merely wish to present the contrasting views on the matter of two artists I greatly admire. It is for each of us to decide which path is the one we will walk, (perhaps, none of the above). But it does seem to me that each of these songs is, in its own way, a prayer for peace.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Peace on Earth: Bomb The World

You can bomb the world into pieces
But you can't bomb it into peace...

Michael Franti and Spearhead: Bomb The World (Armageddon Version)


In a lifetime count of over 300 concerts, from tiny venues to huge stadiums, the best concert I EVER attended was a turn of the century Michael Franti and Spearhead set at the Iron Horse, a small, generally folk-oriented club in Northampton, MA. I remember little in detail but the feeling itself, though I have faint recollections of a full range of sound from beatbox hiphop to Franti's acoustic growl. Mostly, though, I just remember two hours of grinnin' glee and madcap hopdancing on the wooden stairs, eye to eye with Franti himself, the whole crowd pogoing with me as one, until I was sure the whole place was going to bust open and the party spill off to subsume the entire universe.

And it wasn't just me. On the way out of the show, one of the students I was chaperoning lay down in the middle of the street and screamed "kill me now, God, and I can die happy." I picked him up -- after all, I was supposed to be the responsible grown-up -- but I knew exactly how he felt. The best kind of happy drunk, without a lick of liquor.

Since then, I refuse to see Franti again, though I continue to keep his songs in the mix whenever I can, and welcome any opportunity to share the works of this undersung peace-loving, world-changing, roots-showin' hip-hop-slash-folk wild man. Because from here, it's all denouement. NOTHING could match that show. And given Franti's lifemessage -- that music can change the world -- maybe that's the point.

Who said peace songs have to be merry and bright? Christmas is over; let's funk this place up. Play at full volume. Power to the peaceful, y'all.

Peace on Earth: Wise Men

Coyote Run: Wise Men


Nothing says peace and fellowship like a didgeridoo... :-)

From their website:

Originally formed in 1999, Coyote Run has changed significantly from its Celtic Folk roots, evolving into one of the hottest bands on the Celtic Rock circuit today. Blending traditional tunes with rich, literate lyrics, compelling melodies and rock, jazz and flamenco instrumental hooks, this band weaves a tapestry unlike any other out there. Their lyrics and music take the audience on a journey that is at once heart stopping and foot stomping. Tears, laughter, clapping and spontaneous dancing are regular features of a Coyote Run concert.

We've presented Coyote Run three times in our second-Saturday-of-the-month concert series and they're always a crowd pleaser - I included this powerful anti-war song, which exhorts peace in four different languages, in my 2008 holiday mix...

Peace On Earth: Gifts

Steve Forbert: Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977


Joni Mitchell: For Free


As the holiday season begins to wind down, I hope it has brought joy and love of family to all. Part of our theme this week is fellowship, and it seems to me that there can be no greater act of fellowship than the giving of a gift. In these hard times, I am starting to see accounts of times when the need was great, and some of those who could made gifts to those in need anonymously, and with no knowledge of who was receiving the gift. It occurred to me that musicians do this all the time. Their gift is their song. And there are those musicians who do this without regard to how, or even whether, they will be paid.

If you spend any time in a city of a reasonable size, you will have encountered a busker at some point. These are musicians who perform their work in public spaces for all to enjoy. Yes, they open their instrument cases and hope for donations, but their main focus is sharing their art for all to enjoy. Steve Forbert first performed this way, in Grand Central Station in New York City, so we can trust his account of the experience. Joni Mitchell describes her response as a listener to a talented busker.

Special announcement: I now have another space in which to share wonderful music. My own music blog, Oliver di Place just went up this week. Follow the link on the sidebar, and let me know what you think. I look forward to seeing you all there.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Peace On Earth: The Christmas Wish

John Denver & The Muppets: The Christmas Wish


Merry Christmas, Star Makers and readers!

This album, John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together, is what it takes for it to feel like Christmas for me. It has been part of our family tradition for years and has always been a favorite. I mentioned it before on a post about John Denver, but there's something about him that seems to go well with Christmas...and the Muppets, well, who doesn't love the Muppets? This album is beautiful and a Christmas classic for my generation I would say. It has all the fun you'd expect from The Muppets, but also all the serene beauty of a calm holiday by the fire.

This song, though sung by Kermit and the gang and not John, is a song of peace and love and sounds very much like something John would sing. I love the words because it encourages us to remember that Christmas is about sharing and putting away differences to allow for the fellowship of mankind whether you're a Christian or not. Admittedly, I've always found one of the great things about the Muppets to be the friendship of so many odd creatures. Where else would it seem almost normal for a bear to be a harmless, yet pitifully poor, comedian, a frog to date a pig, and a dog to be an amazing pianist? They may not fit in within normal society, but they have each other. The fact that they joke around but also can be melancholy too and will go out of their way for each other really is the spirit of friendship and of the holidays. So today, their Christmas Wish is also mine. I hope you are having a joyous holiday!

Christmas is a time to come together
A time to put all differences aside.
And I reach out my hand
To the family of man
To share the joy I feel at Christmastime.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Peace on Earth: The Christians and the Pagans

As I commented the other day, we are in the process of transporting a family of five via minivan through three states/1600+ miles - I'm thinking I am pretty much immersed in the dynamics of peace and fellowship (or lack thereof, depending on everyone's mood/appetite/sleep habits)...

Also, since I strongly request that we listen to holiday music most of the time we're driving, I have had ample opportunity to (belatedly) identify all the tunes with bells in them - should we ever resurrect that theme... bring it on!

When I first became aware of Dar Williams, I was delighted to discover The Christians and the Pagans, now one of my favorite holiday songs - the boppy tempo of this tune belies the solemnity of the underlying theme: Amber and her girl friend (which Dar has often confirmed as girlfriend) Jane visit Amber's aunt, uncle and and nephew... and undertake a serious discussion of the meaning of the holiday in December.

Amidst the setting of red-dye-#3 candy canes, hanging Marys and burning pumpkin pies, Jane and Amber attempt to explain the similarities between Christmas and Solstice - I was only going to quote a few of my favorite lines but that proved impossible... so I beg your indulgence in reprinting it all here...

The Christians and the Pagans ~ Dar Williams

Amber called her uncle, said "We're up here for the holiday,
Jane and I were having Solstice, now we need a place to stay."
And her Christ-loving uncle watched his wife hang Mary on a tree,
He watched his son hang candy canes all made with red dye number three.
He told his niece, "Its Christmas Eve, I know our life is not your style,"
She said, "Christmas is like Solstice, and we miss you and it's been awhile,"

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said,
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses.

The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch,
Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, "Is it true that you're a witch?"
His mom jumped up and said, "The pies are burning," and she hit the kitchen,
And it was Jane who spoke, she said, "It's true, your cousin's not a Christian,"
"But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share,
And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere,"

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
And where does magic come from? I think magic's in the learning,
Cause now when Christians sit with Pagans only pumpkin pies are burning.

When Amber tried to do the dishes, her aunt said, "Really, no, don't bother."
Amber's uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father.
He thought about his brother, how they hadn't spoken in a year,
He thought he'd call him up and say, "It's Christmas and your daughter's here."
He thought of fathers, sons and brothers, so his own son tugged his sleeve, saying,
"Can I be a Pagan?" Dad said, "Well discuss it when they leave."

So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table,
Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able,
Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and
Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.

Peace on Earth: Happy Xmas (War is Over)

John Lennon: Happy Xmas (War is Over)


Bells. Guitar. John (oh John, how we miss you). A slow build to a celebratory chorus with just a hint of bittersweet. A waltz, the swaying tipsy laughter. Hope, excruciating and generous: War is over, if you want it. Applause.

It's tempting to say more. But some songs speak for themselves.

Bonus: My favorite covers, two of many that take a more melancholy approach.

Damien Rice: Happy Christmas (War is Over)


Teleportation Please: Happy Xmas (War is Over)

[free here]

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, everyone. Let's hope it's a good one, without any fear.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peace on Earth: Peace in the World

The Subdudes: Peace in the World


Christmas Gumbo is a holiday album that came out in 2004 and features music from several well known New Orleans and Louisiana artists. It features offerings from Marc Broussard, Allen Troussant, Aaron Neville, Beausoleil, and many others. It also includes this peaceful prayer from The Subdudes.

The song itself contains references to small snippets of life on Christmas Eve around North America. On each stop in the journey, someone in a less than ideal situation is the recipient of a gesture of holiday cheer that brightens their time a little bit. A soldier returns home to his family in Santa Fe. A homeless man in Montreal receives a home cooked meal. A broken family in Baton Rouge finds it in their hearts to forgive each other.

In each case, the subjects welcome a small bit of peace into their lives.

Peace On Earth: Maybe There's a World

Yusuf Islam: Maybe There's A World


It was unheard of when beloved singer-songwriter Cat Stevens converted to Islam at the height of his fame back in the 1970's. Now, we find it less shocking to see celebrities dabble in other religions, but then it was very odd, and his disappearance from songwriting was even more of a shock. But his conversion gave a famous face to the religion, and now more than ever, it is good to have someone we recognize and respect making music of peace from a culture that is so misunderstood in our part of the world.

In 2006, under his Muslim name Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens produced his first original album in over twenty years. I wasn't sure what to expect when I first heard a song from the album, but I was pleased to find that it had all the charm of the Cat Stevens records I love so much. He couldn't have chosen a more pertinent and important time to make a comeback and share his message of peace.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Peace on Earth: Christmas in the Trenches

John McCutcheon: Christmas in the Trenches


When I saw the announcement of this week’s theme, I knew immediately that I had to post this.

1914 was the first year of what we now call World War I. By year’s end, a series of trenches had been dug to mark the battle lines. These were crude affairs which turned to mud and threatened to collapse in bad weather. Horrifying new weapons were being used by men on each other, and each side had a propaganda machine which mostly succeeded in demonizing the enemy.

In spite of all of this, on Christmas Eve, 1914, the enemies who faced each other as mortal foes suddenly, for a brief moment, became simply men again. Recalling their humanity, they put down their weapons, and began first to speak to each other in shouts across no-man’s land, and then to sing Christmas carols. Soon, cautiously, some men from each side began to climb out of their trenches and meet each other. For the remainder of that day, the impromptu truce lasted, and the men were just men, sharing a small slice of time. Soon enough, commanders on both sides learned what had happened, and the men had to become enemies again as the war resumed.

This all sounds like some unbelievable TV Christmas special. But it really happened. And John McCutcheon has captured the story perfectly.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Peace on Earth: All I Want for Christmas (Is World Peace)

Timbuk 3: All I Want for Christmas (Is World Peace)


Though the intent of this week's theme is to provide an opportunity for both Holiday music and, more generally, songs of peace and fellowship from the entire musical and seasonal spectrum, I couldn't resist kicking things off with a peace-themed song from Christmases past.

I had a thing for Timbuk 3 in the late eighties, thanks to an equally outcast friend who played synthesizer; my fandom was piqued, in part, by the 1987 release of this perfect 80s geek rock holiday single, and it culminated with the following year's release of Out of Eden, before fading into the pre-grunge era as the decade turned.

Looking back, I find most music from the era both dated and precious, as if a packaged piece of childhood. All I Want for Christmas is a perfect sample: quintessentially late eighties, and particularly Timbuk 3, from lead singer Pat MacDonald's wry, unsubtle political songwriting to the faintly fuzzed-out nasal harmonies in doubled fifths. The lyrics are quite a literal commentary on commercialism as a reflection of war, running down a list of violence-inducing toys in each verse before falling into a somewhat petulant, trancelike repetition of wanting world peace instead.

Like much of the Timbuk 3 / Pat MacDonald canon, in fact, it fits well both lyrically and sonically with follow up to yesterday's post on Jim White, albeit a bit more danceable; fans of Oingo Boingo and Wall of Voodoo will find the song especially pleasing. Meanwhile, those looking for a slightly less dated take on the same sentiment will enjoy this live bootleg bluesy electro-folk 1993 cover from similarly politicized post-folkies Bruce Cockburn and Jackson Browne; it takes a minute to warm up, but it's worth it.

Bruce Cockburn and Jackson Browne: All I Want for Christmas is World Peace

[unreleased; popularly available on Santa's Boots]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Jingle Bells: Christmas Day

Jim White: Christmas Day


I saw Jim White almost a decade ago, purely by accident: he was opening for Lucinda Williams, and I have to admit, I was totally blown away by the spectacle of light and stage presence, hushed half-harmonies and looped sound. White's work is often considered folk music, but if it is, it's folk music played through a thousand filters of haunted moaning atmosphere, freakfolk creaky tones, and cultural pastiche. It's like folk music from the time David Lynch and Jim Carroll tried to make a delicate, hushed indiefolk album, and left it in the hands of that guy from the Eels to produce.

Which is to say: I suppose there's a particularly southern trailer park form of singer-songwriter's heart buried in there, but it's one which references both James Taylor singing Fire and Rain and clips from Amazing Grace even as it buries the word bitch in a slow waltz about a Greyhound Station on Christmas Day 1998. The bells are a call to Christmastime, as they are so often wont to be, but they don't make the song any less odd, only that much more experimentally endearing.

Aw hell, words fail me. Just listen, and don't stop until it unravels and falls to pieces at the end. And if you ever get the chance to see Jim White perform, take your weirdest friend for company.

Jingle Bells: The Family Reunion


Our theme this week is Jingle Bells, and no one has posted the song. So I’ve been left to think about it all week. Everyone should know that it’s very dangerous to leave me alone like that. After all, there are countless versions of this holiday classic, and one or two were bound to be .. well... odd. Kind of like the obscure relatives who fill peoples houses at this time of year, never to be seen again, until next year.

First, there is the close family. Different versions of Jingle Bells itself, for different moods.

Chromatics: One Horse Open Sleigh

(purchase info not available)

Christmas is at Granma’s house this year. At her age she does an amazing job of looking like an old-time movie star. She loves the classic songs of the season, but she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s forgotten the words. So she makes up her own.

Crash Test Dummies: Jingle Bells


Cousin Crash will be there. That’s what she wants us to call her. Her birth name is Violet. She’ll be wearing dark rings of makeup around her eyes, and her skin will be even paler than we remember. She’ll make the sweetest songs sound like funerals, be we love her anyway. We have to, she’s family.

Diana Krall: Jingle Bells


Cousin Diana always brightens the mood, but she does tend to get a little wild.

Pearl Bailey: Jingle Bells Cha Cha Cha


Cousin Pearl always manages to get everybody into a conga line sometime during the evening. And we never feel embarrassed about it until we think about it later.

There are also the distant cousins. The songs are not Jingle Bells at all, but they must be relatives.

Jo-El Sonnier: Jingle Bell Rock


Cousin Jo-El always brings Cajun spiced shrimp. They sure are tasty! And he never says much.

Jodie Levins: Jingle Bells Boogie


Nobody can remember how cousin Jody is related to us. He shows up in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, and sits in a corner playing his guitar all night. Occasionally, he’ll stop playing for bit, and get to mumbling about Bob Wills.

I can’t imagine any of them not being there, And I’m looking forward to it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Jingle Bells: Bells Are Ringing

Mary Chapin Carpenter: Bells are Ringing


I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am a Mary Chapin Carpenter fan - there's just something about her whispered enuciation, her unique phrasing and her compelling lyrics that leave me equally peaceful and challenged. She releases consistently excellent recordings, and her latest (in late September) is certainly no exception - Come Darkness, Come Light is subtitled Twelve Songs of Christmas and is filled to overflowing with appropriate covers and originals that reflect (pun intended) the holiday season in all its facets.

From the Rounder store:

Finally, a Christmas album worth listening to all year long. When Mary Chapin Carpenter set out to create Come Darkness, Come Light, she took a far different approach to recording a holiday album than most artists do. Rather than simply lending her voice to time-worn Christmas standards, Mary Chapin wrote her own set of heartfelt songs which explore the many meanings and emotions that Christmas evokes in each of us. These songs, mixed with a few hand-picked gems from other writers and rarely heard traditional tunes, will speak directly to the hearts of all Mary Chapin Carpenter fans. These are not merely holiday songs, they are simply great Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, both warm and intimate. And while they artfully capture the spirit of the season, this is a rare Christmas album that doesn't feel like it needs to be kept on the shelf between New Year's and Thanksgiving. With stellar support from longtime musical partners Jon Carroll (piano) and co-producer John Jennings (guitars), Mary Chapin's voice goes down as warmly as hot cider on a cold winter's night.

Interestingly enough, I first heard Bells Are Ringing on a compilation I bought from Target quite a few years ago, which included selections from a diverse group (Shawn Colvin to Ricky Martin!) - it is delightful to see the song resurrected on this new offering, to reach a wider audience.

Jingle Bells: Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

My wife and I were talking about upcoming themes on Starmaker, and I mentioned that we would probably be doing some kind of holiday theme soon. She said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone had recorded ‘Deck Us All With Boston Charlie?’” Of course this was impossible, and I thought no more about it. Then, this week’s theme was announced. I went to Amazon’s download store, and searched for “bells”. After sifting through the start of the over 2000 hits for tunes I might want to post, I came up with enough possible selections, and decided to go link-hopping, seeking unusual Christmas albums. After only a couple of jumps, what to my wondering eyes should appear but this little gem. And by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, no less! Then, I listened to the snippet, and it got even better. I heard bells! And now, you will too.

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross: Deck Us All With Boston Charlie


The lyrics come from the classic comic strip Pogo, which debuted in the New York Sun in1948, and ran first there and later in national syndication, until 1973. Pogo was created by Walt Kelley, and was distinguished by its use of political satire. Pogo could be read by the younger members of its audience as pure absurdity, but there was also an additional layer of humor for adult readers to enjoy. Pogo strips published near Christmas often featured bizarre new lyrics for familiar carols

Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross were three jazz singers who got together in 1957. As Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, they set original lyrics to well-loved instrumental jazz numbers, even singing the original solos note for note. This approach to jazz singing is called vocalese, and it is a style that they pioneered. The song “Twisted”, heard at the end of Joni Mitchell’s album Court and Spark, was originally the work of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Jingle Bells: Here Comes Santa Claus

Doris Day: Here Comes Santa Claus


I love Doris Day. I do. I love her movies, I love her voice, I love her persona. There's not much about her that doesn't seem squeaky clean and completely likable, and the fact that she's so believable at it is what seals the deal. That clear as a "bell" voice is perfect for holiday classics. Alas, while she was recording albums, she only released one full Christmas album, it was only later that her record labels compiled all the songs she had recorded for Christmas otherwise and put them together. I am so glad they did, because the one I have is just wonderful and fills me with joy...something I think Christmas music really ought to do.

Her version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" is lovely and fun, and begins with plenty of jingling bells and then continues with xylophone, which is a bell of sorts depending on who you ask. It's one of my favorite versions of this holiday classic.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jingle Bells: Merry Christmas Baby

Otis Redding Jr and Otis Redding III

Otis Redding: Merry Christmas Baby


Otis Redding backed by the inimitable Booker T & The MGs on one of my favorite holiday songs of all time. As far as Christmas tunes go, it doesn't get much better than this.

Jingle Bells: Santa Claus Is Watching You

Ray Stevens - Santa Claus Is Watching You


I just ain't feeling the holidays this year. Let's see. It's 7 days till Christmas and it's 78 degrees with 80% humidity, everytime I look at the paper another umpteen thousand people are getting laid off and there is not a single Christmas decoration in my house. No tree, no wreath...nothing...and to top it all off, the wife and I decided not to do gifts this year.

Why? Cause we bought a puppy last week and decided that little terrorist would be gift enough for both of us. Oscar, the puppy, is also the reason there is no tree in out house since we figured he'd just tear it up.

Now, about the song. Well...What do you really say about a Ray Stevens song? They're silly and funny and when this theme was announced it was the first song I thought of.

Merry Christmas to all y'all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jingle Bells: Shchedryk

Peter Ostroushko: Shchedryk


Go back for a moment to Susan‘s excellent post on Carol of the Bells, read it again, and you’ll find the phrase, “ancient pagan Ukranian New Year’s chant”. If you have read any of my posts on British folk songs, you will know that this was a temptation I could not resist. That is why I am posting a song about a swallow, that has no bells, and is a song of spring. Let me explain.

As Susan mentioned, Carol of the Bells is indeed derived from an ancient song from what is now the Ukraine. The original song is called “Shchedryk”. The lyrics are completely different: they tell of a swallow who flies to a farmer’s house to bless him and his family with abundance for the new year. In the pagan tradition of the Ukraine, the year was believed to begin at the first sign of spring, which was the return of the swallows. “Shchedryk” would have been used as a ritual chant to note the occasion.

When the Christians arrived in this part of the world, they imposed their calendar on the people they converted. This was the Julian Calendar, which reckons the beginning of the year as what we now call January 13. And to this day, they still observe New Years on this day, and that is when they sing “Shchendryk”, still with its original lyrics. That poor swallow must be freezing!

So, after learning all of this, the next step for me was to find a version of the song in the original Ukrainian. When I saw the name Peter Ostroushko, I knew my search was over. Ostroushko is a fine mandolin player who frequently appeared on The Prairie Home Companion from its earliest days on. His “Shchendryk” starts with a lovely a capella rendition, followed by a restatement of the theme on the mandolin. From there, we’re off on a wild ride which even makes a brief stop in Christmastown, before returning to the Ukraine by January 13.

Bonus tracks:

This is all very well, but where are the bells? Well, Susan did invite me to present more versions of Carol of the Bells, so why not?

John Fahey: Carol of the Bells


When I want a straight reading of a Christmas song, I like a spare arrangement for a single instrument. Acoustic guitar will do nicely. But because of the rhythmic complexity of Carol of the Bells, it takes a master such as John Fahey to pull this off.

Sylvia Woods: Carol of the Bells


Sylvia Woods has been playing the harp for thirty years. She has appeared on the Prairie Home Companion, and played with the Chieftains, so why isn’t she better known? It’s hard to make a living as a harpist, so Woods also writes harp books, gives lessons, and operates a retail and mail-order harp business. I would imagine that all of this limits her ability to tour. Here, she solves the problem of rhythmic complexity by arranging Carol of the Bells for a harp trio.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jingle Bells: White Christmas

Esquivel: White Christmas


Many folks think of Esquivel as epitomized by a lush form of lounge music. But this something different: a holiday tune on a cocaine binge, tapped out on the edge of a martini glass. Mad bells and tinkly triangle and a never-ending choral crescendo into a world of scat and staccato, creating a manic sort of cheerfulness edged with something desperate. It is, perhaps, the least soothing version of this song ever recorded. The bells just make it worse. Gorgeous, in its way.

Jingle Bells: Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year

Rosie Thomas: Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year


It starts out with a staccato piano rhythm... then an explosion of drums... then another piano, with a bouncy beat... then "the tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells - from the jingling and the tinkling of the bells"!

I was already familiar with the songs of Rosie Thomas, having bought her first two CDs years ago after reading about her on the Joni-list - the title of Rosie's Only with Laughter Can You Win is a nod to the influence of Joni Mitchell...

Then Boyhowdy gave me the heads-up a few months back about Rosie's soon-to-be-released Christmas CD, on which she covers Alvin and the Chipmunks' Christmas, Don't Be Late and Joni's River... both haunting, stripped-down versions of the originals - I was curious to hear more and bought the single of Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year from iTunes, immediately falling in love with her exuberant embrace of the season of family and friends... and including it in my eighth annual holiday mix, soon to be distributed to my own circle of loved ones...

Raise your hand if you wish it was Christmastime all year - We do! We do!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jingle Bells: The Black Plague

Eric Burdon & The Animals: The Black Plague


By 1966 The Animals had, for all intents and purposes disbanded. Lead singer Eric Burdon had discovered acid, and bassist Chas Chandler had discovered Jimi Hendrix. Everyone else went back to Newcastle it seems, everyone except Eric Burdon and recent drummer Barry Jenkins. They decided they liked this town called San Francisco, and these people called hippies. So Eric decided to persevere, he got a whole new band together....complete with an electric violinist....cause hey, nothing says "we dig acid" like an electric violin. He hastely dubbed this band The New Animals and debuted themselves with a brand new song about San Francisco at the Monterey Pop Festival. Two months later, the album was out.....Winds Of Change, Eric's psychedelic debut. Now the "New Animals" never achieved the same succes that the "old Animals" did, which is a shame, because I think it's some of Eric Burdon's best work, second only to his early 70's work with War. Winds of Change is in my opinion the best Eric Burdon and The Animals album, and arguably one of the best of the psychedelic era....certainly one of the most forgotten. This song, a morality tale about the Black Death, is pretty representative of about half the album....the blue shade of the mood ring half.....well, given the subject matter....maybe dark blue.

The black plague is estimated to have wiped out anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of Europe's population from 1340 till the late 1600's. And it killed indiscriminately as purported in this song. Prince or pauper, priest or stableboy....all were subject to this much misunderstood epidemic. It is consequentially what kept Europe in the dark ages for so long. Religious fervor spread, jews, lepers and people with simple acne or psoriasis were executed. Witches and heretics were hunted and burned. There was disenchantment with the church. Some, like Martin Luther, sought reform. Some, like the flagellents decided the only way man could stop God's wrath was to travel form city to city mimicking the crucifixion in an effort to suffer as Jesus suffered. Cats were killed and burned for being in league with the devil (inadvertently prolonging the plague in the process), many were convinced the world itself was ending. And inside the castle wall, the bell tolled on...

Guest Submission from Truer Sound

Jingle Bells: Ring Out Solstice Bells

Jethro Tull: Ring Out Solstice Bells


Most people count “Aqualung” as their introduction to the music of Jethro Tull. That certainly was the case for me. And for years, I never went beyond that. Jethro Tull seemed to be another hard rock band following in the footstep of Led Zeppelin, distinguished mainly by those weird sounds that Ian Anderson got out of his flute. My wife, however, taught me that there is much more to Jethro Tull than that..

It turns out that Jethro Tull came out of the same British folk-rock scene that spawned Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and many others. In its later years, the members of Jethro Tull even included former members of Fairport and Steeleye. So it is not surprising to find the influence of British folk music in the work of Jethro Tull.

I have discussed the presence of pre-Christian elements in British folk tradition before. On Jethro Tull’s album Songs From the Wood, Ian Anderson has taken what is subtle in traditional British songs, and made it explicit in his original compositions. “Ring Out Solstice Bells” describes what a druid solstice ritual might have been like.

So let me wish everybody a very happy Solstice. And if anybody knows any Hanukkah bell songs, I hope we’ll hear them this week, (I can’t think of any, or I would take care of it myself).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jingle Bells: Sleigh Ride

The Ronettes: Sleigh Ride


Last winter, I took my two little girls for a ride in a one horse open sleigh at our local 19th century reenactment village. Our driver, an old and familiar friend, pointed out the rows of jingle bells tied to the harness, and taught us that such bells were required by law in such old-time townships. It seems that, given the incredible speed which a well-build sleigh could attain as it sped its passengers through woods and field on their way from house to village and back again, the bells alerted others using the same well-worn trails of impending doom under hoof and runner, so that they might scurry into the underbrush at the first jingle, and be saved.

These days, the history of the jingle bell's origin may be forgotten, but the association of sleigh-rides with jingle bells lives on in several gleeful seasonal songs which call back to winters past, as seen through rosy glasses of historical romanticism, and always from the perspective of the riders, rather than the hapless pedestrians.

As an introductory sally in what will surely prove a fruitful survey of our favorite versions of several such songs this week here at Star Maker Machine, this evening, I offer this classic take on a song originally written as an orchestral piece, first recorded by The Boston Pops in 1949, and subsequently re-released by the Andrews Sisters in 1950 with newly written lyrics before becoming one of the most popular standards of the season.

The Ronettes 1963 version of Sleigh Ride is surely familiar, and hardly obscure; I heard it twice today, in fact, while spinning the dials on a long car ride with those same little girls, now one year older and a heck of a lot more demanding about which songs of the season are worth their attention. It wasn't the first recording of the song, and it won't be the last. But it is a standard worth sharing, one which speaks to the flexibility and power of that girl-group sound. And it stands out here because of the horsey intro, and the way the bells -- of both the glockenspiel and jingle variety -- each get their due before becoming almost buried in Phil Spector's infamous wall of sound.

As a bonus, here's a wonderfully gleeful alt-rock version from indie producer and musician Rob Cosh. It's got bells on, too.

Rob Cosh: Sleigh Ride


For an entirely different albeit similarly girl-voiced take on the same song from nasal folktrio The Roches, feel free to head over to Cover Lay Down, where once again I have been unable to resist cluttering the bloggiverse with holiday coverfolk.

Jingle Bells: Carol of the Bells

Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkins, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Jane Siberry, Victoria Williams: Carol of the Bells


George Winston: Carol of the Bells


The Nylons: Carol of the Bells


From Wikipedia:

"Carol of the Bells" (also known as the "Ukrainian Bell Carol") is a choral miniature work originally composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych. Throughout the piece, a 4 note motif is used as an ostinato and was taken from an ancient pagan Ukrainian New Year's chant known in Ukrainian as "Shchedryk". The original work was intended to be sung a cappella.

The composition was premiered in December 1916 by students at Kiev University and was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas. It premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921, at Carnegie Hall and was later adapted into English language version by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s.

The rest of the story can be found here...

I offer up my three favorite versions: haunting harmonies, melodic piano instrumental and layered a cappella... and, as Joni says, "you know, there may be more" - enjoy!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Snow Day

Catherine MacLellan: Snow Day


Catherine MacLellan is a wonderful folk singer who's sophomore album, Church Bell Blues, was released earlier this year. Most of the songs found here are generally unadorned; simplisticically sweet folk songs. Just a guitar or two, a beautifully pure voice and little else.

Perfect for this week's theme is of course her song, "Snow Day," which is also coincidentally, one of my favorites. It illustrates how easily a song can paint a picture. I can envision driving in a beat-up pick-up in the middle of a small, snowed over town. Everything closed. Everything white. Then driving back home, where the lights are on, smoke is coming out of the chimney and my two dogs are peering through the window as they hear the truck's engine.

Cliché? Probably. Or maybe I've seen too many movies, but this song makes it easy to imagine a scene like this. And because I've spent most of my life in California, I rarely even see snow, but I sure can relate (I've spent winter in New York - Brrrr).

- - - - -

Snow down, you can’t hear it land
Take time if you can to see it’s shape
Slow down, there’s no need to rush
There’s nothing but snow and slush on the streets

And all the dogs are stuck inside
They’ll be there until spring time
Oh It’s too cold they say

Snow day, everything is shut down
There’s no one in town, on the streets
It’s no day for doing a thing
No chores I’ll just song you to sleep

And all of us are stuck inside
Out there it’s just too wild
Oh it’s too wild out there

From my bed I can see that tree
It speaks to me in my sleep
Lover said I’m glad it’s there
It’s something to stare at today

And all the crows they laugh at us
As my car turns to rust
Oh it’s too old they say

Winter Wonderland: It's Snowing Angels

Andy Partridge: It's Snowing Angels


Ever since XTC broke up, founding member, guitarist and chief songwriter, Andy Partridge, has been been at work of a series of albums titled Fuzzy Warbles. There's eight individual volumes, It's Snowing Angels is from the first one, which was released in 2002. If you're a fan of melodic Pop, a la The Beatles, you'll truly enjoy today's selection. Now, maybe if we all click our heels together three times and say, "There's no band like XTC", we can get the fellows back together. Holiday miracle and all that...

Winter Wonderland: Footprints In The Snow

Clarence White & Doc Watson - Footprints In The Snow [purchase]

Muleskinner - Footprints In The Snow [purchase]

Today we bookend the career of guitar hero, Clarence White, with a bluegrass standard popularized by Bill Monroe in the 1940s. The duet with Doc Watson in July 1964 was, in some ways, Clarence's coming out party. The Kentucky Colonels' masterpiece, Appalachian Swing, had been released that April, but for bluegrass fans not living in the band's home base of California, the Newport Folk Festival in July was their first chance to see the Colonels in person. Clarence and Doc played a handful of songs at a guitar workshop and I think it's fair to say that the audience got their money's worth.

Muleskinner was a bluegrass supergroup featuring, in addition to Clarence, Peter Rowan on rhythm guitar, David Grisman on mandolin, Richard Greene on fiddle, and Bill Keith on banjo. Ironically, the group's existence was made possible by Bill Monroe. In February 1973, the guys were set to back up Monroe for a Southern California TV show, but the old man's bus broke down on the way to the studio. So, the band played the gig without him, and then in March and April, laid down tracks for an album. Sadly, that album features some of Clarence's final recorded guitar work as he died at the hands of a drunk driver on July 15.

FYI, for those of you wondering when the latest chapter of the Clarence White Chronicles will be set loose on the God-fearing public, look for it on The Adios Lounge in the next few days.

Winter Wonderland: Snow in Austin

Ellis Paul: Snow in Austin intro

Ellis Paul: Snow in Austin


Ellis Paul has been a fixture on the folk and acoustic scene since the early 90's - I bought his debut CD, Say Something, because of the picture of his bare feet on the back cover of the CD booklet (yeah, I also cheer for sports teams for the color of their uniforms... and bet on horses for their creative names!).

Smart lyrics, smooth vocals, great sense of humor, interesting between-song stories - add to that tall, lanky, "sexy ugly" looks (anyone else seen Kissing Jessica Stein?), and it's a blue-ribbon recipe for success. Ellis maintains an intense touring schedule and has a rabid fan base that even a wife and two children haven't dampened - plus he's a strong proponent of the work of Woody Guthrie and has mainstream popularity with songs included in the films Me, Myself & Irene and Shallow Hal. I've had the pleasure of experiencing Ellis live a double-handful of times, from commercial venues to house concerts to festivals - he never disappoints...

Snow in Austin is the story of boy meets girl, boy and girl have a long distance relationship (she lives in Massachusetts, he in Texas), chances of girl moving south are as slim as the Red Sox winning the World Series... or snow falling in Austin - hmmm, maybe it's time to reconsider?

Winter Wonderland: Snow Day, v 3.0

Trout Fishing in America: Snow Day


This week, we have had a first on Starmaker, the hidden sub-theme. It was, of course, “Snow Day: post songs called Snow Day”. I did a search on Itunes, and I can cheerfully report that there are still many choices left if you haven’t gotten in on this yet.

All of that said, I am still surprised that this one was still available. Trout Fishing in America is that wonderful altitudinally mismatched pair of Ezra Idlet and Keith Grimwood who are responsible for so much wonderful kid’s music. There is only one thing more challenging than trying to find kid’s music that doesn’t drive an adult into a diabetic coma, and that is trying to find kid’s holiday music that meets this requirement. Fortunately, Trout’s Merry Fishes to All fills the bill nicely.

Winter Wonderland: Snowblind Friend

Hoyt Axton: Snowblind Friend


To me Hoyt Axton will always be the dad on Gremlins....yes that Hoyt Axton (as if there is another guy with such a cool name). Depending on when you grew up (70's or 80's) odds are you will recognize him. In the 70's he was the go to good ole boy actor, starring in everything from Bonanza and Dukes of Hazzard to Murder She Wrote and Diff'rent Strokes in the 80's. Odds are also high you might recognize one of his many songs that have been made famous by others: Joy to The World ring a know "Jeremiah was a bullfrog"...Hoyt wrote it. The know "God damn the pusher man"....yep Hoyt wrote that too. Going even further back....Greenback Dollar made famous by the Kingston Trio....Hoyt wrote it. Know that big mac jingle....Hoyt. How about Heartbreak Hoyt did not write that.....his mother did!

So here is one of my favorite songs he has ever written. Much like The Pusher it's an anti-drug song written the way only a man who has been to the bottom and climbed back up could write it, and also like The Pusher this song is more famous for the version Steppenwolf does. Hoyt probably has one of the most soothing yet commanding voices in all of folk-dom....and especially tv-dom. The kind of voice few men are blessed with....and those men are named Kris Kristofferson, Sam Elliot, and Johnny Cash -- pretty good company if you ask me.

Guest post submitted by Truersound

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Snowin’ in Brooklyn

Ferron: Snowin‘ in Brooklyn


Ferron’s songs are often about relationships, and the stories they tell can apply to different aspects of the same situation. Snowin’ in Brooklyn is a breakup song in which the narrator is advising acceptance of the situation. “If it’s snowin’ in Brooklyn, I’d say snow’s what we’ve got.” It could be that the narrator is helping a friend through the aftermath of the breakup through an exchange of letters. But it would be equally valid to assume that the narrator is one half of the couple that broke up, and her advising acceptance is for her own benefit as well as her correspondent‘s. And the lyrics make no assumption about the genders of the two characters.

The question of gender comes up because Ferron is a lesbian. In my younger days, I fell in with a crowd that included members of New Brunswick, NJ’s gay and lesbian community, and a group of us attended a Ferron concert. I got lost in the music, and the intensity of Ferron’s lyrics, and did not realize until later that some of the lesbians in the audience picked up on the (apparently) very straight vibes I was giving off, and they greeted this with hostility. But I remember that Ferron specifically urged the straight members of the audience to sing along. She was obviously gay but not narrow, and I’m sure the lack of gender specificity in her lyrics was deliberate.

Gay and lesbian musicians have two career paths available to them. The lucky ones, like Melissa Ethridge, can achieve popularity with a mainstream audience before coming out publicly, and can then retain most or all of their audience. But there are probably many more who tread the same path as Ferron. She released her first two albums herself, and when a label came calling, it was one that specialized in lesbian music. Thus, she became labeled, and once that happens, it becomes very difficult to reach a wider audience. I hope this post helps in some small way.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Snow Day

Bleu: Snow Day


I woke up to the radio
And the glare of a blanket of fallen snow
When I heard the DJ speak to me
In a voice that was thick as an evergreen
He announced all the schools that were closing

On my knees and pray
For a snowy day
Cause I need a break
And I wanna sled the day away
I need a snow day

In my other life, I'm a high school teacher. Among other things, this means that several times each year, my workday gets cancelled at the whim of weather, a decision based primarily on whether or not a superintendent thinks that he can get the busses running safely.

Whether you've got kids or just were one once, you know the utterly exquisite, perfectly delicious feeling that is the impending dream of a snowday. But you've never seen that rare combination of glee and relief in its perfect state until you've lived with a teacher at the end of his rope, waking early to stare hopefully out the window, watching the flakes come pouring down while the radioman drones districts in the background. My wife says its like living with an extra-big kid. I take that as a compliment.

Here's Boston-based one man band Bleu with a totally high energy kid-friendly powerpop number that really captures the utter joy of the snow day experience: nothing deep, just two minutes twenty of sheer happiness. The winter ditty, complete with kidvoices and totally bitchin' guitar solo, was originally released on his 1999 holiday album A Bing Bang Holidang; I subsequently discovered it on the debut disk in my favorite indie kid series For The Kids, and can assure you that like the rest of the tunes on that fine disk, it may be officially for kids, but it's targeted towards the kid in all of us. Meet you on the sledding hill!

Winter Wonderland: Snow Angel

Boyhowdy has been guest-blogging at Breakthrough Radio this week - in yet another burst of synchronicity that is my life, below is a snippet of his post from earlier today, as he describes the modus operandi of Star Maker Machine:

For example, this week, our theme is Winter Wonderland, which means we’re posting songs with the word snow in the title; though I’m submitting this post in advance, I have no idea what the pack has come up with, but given the general trend over there, I can predict with reasonable certainty that this week’s early entries have consisted of mostly older, well-cared-for songs from across the genre spectrum...

These more recent piano ballads which use the idea of snow as both metaphor and setting – Over The Rhine’s lush Snow Angel, and neo-trad folkie Kristen Andreassen’s lovely, hushed Like The Snow — wouldn’t be as good a fit there, and since they’re not covers, I can’t share them over at Cover Lay Down. But they’re eminently worth including here today.

The synchronistic part being... I uploaded a draft of Snow Angel early yesterday morning, planning to fine-tune and finish later in the day (after I returned from taking a friend to the doctor... and picking out new bathroom tiles) - the upshot is... I was too exhausted after my errands and vowed to complete the post today... at which point I read BH's submission. I'm still going to follow through on my original intention... and just chalk it up to great-minds-think-alike phenomenon - I'm honored to share an idea with someone whose vivid writing and diverse music tastes I very much admire!

I'm a bit late to the Over the Rhine (married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler) bandwagon, still not possessing any of their regular recordings, but I bought Snow Angels (based on a friend's recommendation) a few years ago... and adore her gorgeous voice, his evocative songwriting and the spare yet rich arrangements of every song on the CD.

From OTR's website:

The Seattle Times calls Over the Rhine's Holiday CD, Snow Angels, "the best soundtrack since A Charlie Brown Christmas for feeling melancholy and lovesick in December."

Over the Rhine: Snow Angel


They say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow and, on Snow Angel, Karin's delivery is plaintive with broken-hearted weariness - as a yang to that yin, I offer up another declaration of love (from the same CD), this song as sizzling as the other is frozen...

Over the Rhine: Snowed In with You


Winter Wonderland: Roses in the Snow

Emmylou Harris: Roses in the Snow


Roses in the Snow was Emmylou Harris' bluegrass album. Released in 1980, it was the follow up recording to her 1979 release Blue Kentucky Girl... a straightforward country record that produced a number one single and won Emmy a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Of course, the smart thing to do after releasing a successful and highly acclaimed country album is to then immediately release a bluegrass album in the midst of the Countrypolitan, Urban Cowboy world of 1980's Nashville. Her label didn't want to release it at first, but eventually caved after Emmylou refused to shelve the project. The label heads feared a commercial failure.

However misguided the move may have seemed to some... Emmylou made it work. The album went to number two on the country charts (it was certified Gold faster than any other Emmylou recording) and is still as well loved as any in her catalogue. Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Albert Lee, Emory Gordy, and producer Brian Ahern formed the core of the band for this album with guest appearances by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Jerry Douglas, Linda Ronstadt, and The Whites. With a cast like that, it's easy to see how Emmylou created a masterpiece.

When Emmylou was looking for songs for Roses in the Snow, she began going through record stores and looking for bluegrass songs written and performed by female artists... a rarity at the time in a male dominated genre. In a dusty pile in the back room of Tower Records, she found an album by bluegrass artist Delia Bell. Emmylou had never heard of Bell, but she bought the album anyway and was introduced to the Ruth Franks penned "Roses in the Snow." The story of lost love told from a female perspective captured Emmy's imagination and led her to include it as the lead track, and title cut, on her album.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Cold Rain & Snow

The Be Good Tanyas - Cold Rain & Snow [live]


I am a Florida native. I never even saw snow until I was in my mid-twenties and I went snowboarding for the first time. I remember being amazed at just how accurate the spray snow we always put on the Christmas tree actually was. I love going snowboarding these days and start getting excited once I start seeing flurries at football games. As much as I like playing in snow, I don't know how any of y'all could actually live in that crap. Bleh! I'll take shorts in December anytime.

None of this has shit to do with the song I'm posting. Oh well.

Winter Wonderland: Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow


Nick Cave is an amazing songwriter and storyteller, always creating haunting tales of death, addiction and general human malice. He's been making records for twenty years or more, and was named one of Paste Magazine's 100 Greatest Living Songwriters a few years back, something I strongly agree with, though I'd like to have seen him higher than #90.

This song is generally believed to be yet another song using snow as metaphor for cocaine. This is probably quite likely considering this album (which is also probably the one I genuinely enjoy the most of his) was the first Cave made after getting off drugs himself. The names he mentions in the song, Mona, Mary, John, Mark, Matthew, are supposed to signify people he lost due to drugs. The metaphor is brought to life, imagining friends slowly being lost to this tremendous blizzard, and slowly losing yourself under that same weight of heavy snow.

Winter Wonderland: Black Snow

Peter Mulvey: Black Snow


Wintertime, and especially the holiday season, can be overwhelming. When you get to thinking of all you have to do, with limited time and resources, it’s easy to just shut down completely. For Peter Mulvey, the perfect symbol of these feelings is a bank of black snow. You can’t make anything out of it, you don’t want to walk in it, all you can do is wish it would melt.

Peter Mulvey began his musical career busking in the Boston subway system. Playing acoustic guitar in such a noisy environment requires you to develop a loud and percussive style. Listening to Black Snow, I can imagine the subway trains providing the percussion parts.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Winter Wonderland: Through the Bitter Frost and Snow

Susan McKeown: Through the Bitter Frost and Snow


When I began my aforementioned contemporary folk and acoustic journey in the mid- to late-90’s, Dar Williams was the catalyst who led me to so many others – I bought beaucoups of compilations, which then had me trekking to my local Barnes & Noble to find solo recordings by various artists.

One particular CD I purchased primarily because of the cover artwork and the name of the group: Bones by Susan McKeown and the Chanting House – mysterious, right? I adored that CD (Albatross and Snakes and Love and Superstition, oh my!) and it remains in my Top Ten, as much for Susan's strong voice as her inventive songwriting. Imagine my surprise when I realized later she is cataloged as Celtic – “but I don’t like Celtic!”, I thought… and the following paragraph helps explain her hold over me in a non-preferred genre:

If there's some dividing line between Celtic traditionalism and eclectic contemporary songwriting, McKeown refuses to acknowledge it. And with a voice as warm, resonant and versatile as hers, why should she? - The Oregonian

Whew – crisis averted!

Being a collector of eclectic holiday music, I was thrilled when she released Through the Bitter Frost and Snow, which describes so much better than I ever could:

Anyone who lives in snow country can appreciate the stark but fascinating landscapes Susan McKeown and Lindsey Horner conjure up in this jazzy folk-rock amalgam that traverses the stars ("Bold Orion") and the biting solitary expanses of the title track. Still there's an uncanny warmth and longing in the voices, the truncated harmonies, and the resonating bass line, the bass often serving as a lead instrument in "Song for Forgetting," for example. McKeown and Horner have managed to create a highly distinctive record of wintry exploration that mixes traditional British Isles folk singing and jazz phrasing while embracing familiar fare such as "Coventry Carol," "Auld Lang Syne" (almost dirgelike), and "Green Grow'th the Holly." No stranger to melancholy, the record will have a disquieting affect. But it will also please and intrigue with its bittersweet sadness and ironic arrangements for anyone willing to acquire such a beguiling taste of the dark month of Christmas. --Martin Keller

I included this tune on my 2005 Holiday Mix, and continue to enjoy the voice and style of a woman who defies the limitations of boundaries – I hope it warms your heart as well…