Saturday, April 18, 2015

Light: Harbor Lights

Frances Langford: Harbor Lights


Boz Scaggs: Harbor Lights


Bruce Hornsby: Harbor Lights


Think of the song Harbor Lights, and you may think of versions by The Platters, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, or Guy Lombardo, to name a few. Whoever you think of, you will be thinking of one of the corniest and sappiest songs ever written, one I had no intention of posting. The song tells of a weeping lover lamenting a lost love who has sailed away to sea. In the original recording by Frances Langford, from 1937, the song is song by a woman, and it becomes clear that the departed lover is a sailor who has proved faithless. Versions sung by men make no sense to me, but the song is inescapable throughout pop music history. In putting this post together, I realized that one does not call a song Harbor Lights without dealing with the original cornball classic in some way.

Boz Scaggs responded with a new song called Harbor Lights. There is a sly reference to the original in a line about an old song on the juke box. Scaggs is offended by the earlier song on behalf of the male half of the human race. His song says we men are not horrible like that. His narrator is a sailor who is faithful, and looks forward eagerly to returning to his lover.

Bruce Hornsby‘s reaction is more radical. He rejects the entire setup, and says, “No, this is not at all what harbor lights evoke for me.” There is no question of faithfulness in his song. Instead there is the rush of a new romance, with its powerful sense of infinite possibility. Hornsby‘s song is both a literal and figurative statement. It was the title track to the first album Hornsby recorded as a solo artist, after three with the Range. More importantly, it was Hornsby‘s first album after spending time as a member of the Grateful Dead. The Range albums are fine, but here Hornsby cuts loose for the first time. The songs add a jazz flavor, and they lengthen to allow the musicians to stretch out with solos. The guitar solos here are by guest Pat Metheny, and Jerry Garcia appears elsewhere on the album. Hornsby is celebrating his newfound freedom from traditional pop song forms, and he is invoking and rebutting one of the hoariest examples of traditional pop to do so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Light: I Am The Light of The World

Rev. Gary Davis: I Am The Light of the World

Many people just listen to music as background noise, or something to sing or dance to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But those of us who consider music a hobby, or an obsession, aren’t satisfied with that. We investigate. We try to learn more about the songs and the artists we love, and in that effort are often rewarded with deeper knowledge. Or, at least, more knowledge. Much of what I know about the blues comes from investigating covers by musicians that I already knew, and that is consistent with the blues tradition of artists learning traditional songs, or original songs (or original songs thought to be traditional) from recordings or performances by others.

I first became aware of Rev. Gary Davis through listening to Jorma Kaukonen’s performances of his music, solo and with Hot Tuna. And I learned about Davis’ influential finger-picking style that had an impact on Jorma, and others, including Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, and many, many more. I learned that he was born in South Carolina in 1896, was blind since infancy, and was an actual Baptist minister. That he played and recorded music into the 1940s to niche success. But that the folk and blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s catapulted him to greater fame, performances at the Newport and other folk festivals, and led to covers of the songs he wrote or popularized by popular artists. I learned that Davis generously taught many of these younger musicians how to play in his style, and his songs, and that he died on the way to a gig in New Jersey in 1972. And I discovered that while many of Davis’ songs were religious, he also wrote secular songs.

“I Am The Light of The World” is a religious song, based on the Gospels, and steeped in his faith. I’m not a religious person, in the sense of believing in a god or anything like that, but I do believe that humans have an obligation to try to do right by each other and, in the best of situations, help each other to do right. And while I suspect that Reverend Davis would disagree with me in the particulars, I think that he would, ultimately, focus more on the deeds than the beliefs.

Now, I am far from perfect. I’ve committed all seven of the deadly sins, and more of the less lethal ones, over my lifetime. Not to mention, I’m a lawyer. But one thing that I am comfortable in putting on the good side of my personal ledger is my 20 years as a volunteer with AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization, which I have written about before. We are a soccer organization, but one that tries to focus more on enriching children’s lives than a team’s won-loss record. For a number of years, I have been involved in training volunteers in management—not only the nuts and bolts of running a program, but in the AYSO way of doing things.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help instruct at Regional Commissioner training. RCs, as we call them, are the leaders of local programs. I was one back at the turn of the century, and it was one of the most important things that I have ever done. RCs work incredibly hard, spend countless hours making sure everything is done right, and are all volunteers, as are all of the board members who help the RC, and all of the coaches and most of the referees. People say that it is a “thankless task,” but I found that many people thanked me, and in turn I tried to thank all of the RCs who followed me, and all of the other volunteers, not only explicitly, but by continuing to assist the organization locally and nationally.

A few years ago, pressed by some very smart and committed staff and volunteers, AYSO decided to put together a weekend of training for RCs from around the country, usually at its office in California. The weekends are instructional, but they are more. They create relationships, act as therapy sessions (there are tears!), and help the RCs, some who are brand new, and even others with experience, recognize the support that they have both from the staff and the volunteers around the country. And the constant message is that it is the RCs’ mission to provide a good environment for the kids, and a positive experience for the volunteers. It is an inspirational weekend, not only for the students, but for the instructors as well. I got to see a group of nearly 40 strangers, from all over the country, with different racial, educational and financial backgrounds, varying political beliefs and very diverse lives, bond, learn, interact, socialize, act crazy, marvel at magic tricks, and, at the end, have an enormous group hug as a new AYSO family.

What does this have to do with our theme, and this song? Each of the RCs who were trained at this session will go back home, to Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, all over the hand that is Michigan, Nevada, California, Tennessee and Hawaii, and be the light of their soccer worlds, and bring the light into the lives of thousands of children. And when those kids’ smiles light up their faces, into the lives of their parents.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I never knew why this guy wasn't huge. At this point I should point out I had no inkling of any earlier career, nor had even heard of the Youngbloods in 1974, which was when I first heard this song and it's parent LP of the same name. And it was a revelation. Bear in mind this was the time and the year of Van Morrison's seminal live album, "It's Too Late to Stop Now" and this seemed to come from a similar place, at least in instrumentation and timbre. Sure, the vocal couldn't be more different, but it fitted the jazzy tinge of reed-led swing redolent throughout the first side of the record. Sadly, at least for me, he never again found that peak again, with even side 2 being somewhat lack-lustre by comparison. But, o my goodness, for those 20 minutes or so, if that, this was one light that lit up my life. And still does.

Possessor of one of the moustaches in modern music, Young was born the somewhat more prosaic Perry Miller in New York, where he was a school contemporary of Art Garfunkel. Before the Youngbloods, he had already produced his first couple of solo discs, before their brief window, peaking with a top 5 hit, "Get Together" in 1969, with a subsequent return to a solo career, give or take the odd re-union. I mention them for two reasons, one because the song in this piece actually had an earlier incarnation on their 1971 release, "Good 'n' Dusty", barely a shadow of its later self. The second is merely to mention the name of fellow group member, one Lowell "Banana" Levinger, which is, um, certainly a memorable one. I can't seem to find any reference as to why, which may be a relief.

No messing with downloads, this time buy the whole thing, even if you only listen to the first "side".

Monday, April 13, 2015

Light: Dancing in the Moonlight

Buy Toploader: Dancing in the Moonlight
Buy Harvest King: Dancing in the Moonlight

Light it is, this theme around.

If you're going to classify your lights, moonlight is possibly the most romantic of all lights, closely followed by firelight, candlelight - and some folks  would include firefly light. And if you are going to classify your hits, you might take a moment to consider why King Harvest is not remembered for the original version, but TopLoader is for theirs.

I won't lay claim to being a great fan of these guys: TopLoader, but that won't stop me from promoting this song for our theme, either. In fact, (probably like you) all I know about them is that they have this one hit song. But I will give them kudos for coming out with this. Note: not coming up with, but *coming out* with it: although they are the band best remembered for the song, it isn't their composition: it belongs to King Harvest (who?!?) However, like them or not, (their version of) the song is catchy - and that's probably why it became more popular than the King Harvest original. For that matter, it strikes me that it isn’t all that unlike some other songs that took someone to the big time (Please, Please Me &c) in relation to the lack of depth of its lyrics.

Harvest King

Of course, there are many ways to rank your musical preferences other than "best" or "original" - and even then, you are walking a thin line in calling *your* definition of best/original the same as other people's! I recall a t-shirt I bought in the 60s that said "Cool is as cool does" - and I guess that applies here. Harvest King wrote a decent song, TopLoader made it "cool".

To the extent that SMM aims to enlighten its audience, let me add a hidden gem in the way of a version that you would be unlikely to run across unless you followed my "trail". To me, this clip is so, so typical of what it means to be on the stage as an amateur musician: acceptably competent, but everyone just walks and talks right past them. Make your own comparisons: "tightness" of the band, showmanship, backup vocals …what else is it that makes a song/a band a hit?

For that matter, The Rolling Stones' Moonlight Mile (a totally different genre/emotion) is equally a best as a "moonlight" song, n'est ce pas?

Light: The Inner Light

    The first George Harrison song to appear on a Beatles single is also the last Beatles era George Harrison song inspired by his interest in Indian music. 

   A B-side to "Lady Madonna", "The Inner Light" was recorded in first in  India and then at Abbey Road. The Mumbai musicians were among the same ones involved with Harrison's Wonderwall soundtrack.

    Back in England, on February 6, 1968, with Lennon and McCartney offering encouragement,  a nervous George sang the lyrics in a dimly lit studio decked out in incense and lit candles. They were inspired by Poem 47 of the Tao Te Ching by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
 Without looking out your window,
 you can see the essence of the Tao.

 The more you know,
 the less you understand.

 The Master arrives without leaving,
 sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

 Two days later, Lennon and McCartney overdubbed some background vocals ( heard at 2:18) and completed the mono mix. Ringo doesn't appear on the song On February 6. He was performing on Cilla Black's live BBC show Cilla.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Light: One Headlight

Holly Figueroa O'Reilly: One Headlight (Wallflowers cover)
[from One, 2011]

I've been gone for a long, long time, and I probably won't be back again for a while: we've been struggling with the fallout from chronic illness in both my children for a few years now, and it makes my time short, and precious.

But as those of us who have been blogging since the form was born remember well, sometimes a theme speaks to you, or at least, calls something out of you. And I've been thinking about this song, and its album, a lot in the past few months, longing for an excuse to bring it back to the fore.

You see, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly has been gone for a while, too. As I wrote on my own all-covers, all-folk blog in 2011, the contemporary folk singer-songwriter lost her voice on stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2009, twelve years, two Grammy nominations, and several major label offers into a blossoming and determinedly indie career. A visit to a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of both rheumatiod arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a pair of inflamatory diseases which ultimately affected both her voice and her hands, keeping her from singing and playing the guitar for a year – a great loss for O’Reilly, and for the folk community.

Sadly, though drugs ultimately soothed and restored that voice for a while, O’Reilly’s clock was ticking; according to her own bio and facebook feed, the massive doses of steroids she was ingesting were doing as much damage to her body as the disease itself. And so O’Reilly made the impossible choice: to give up her voice in order to live without pain, for her family’s sake and for her own.

But first, she decided to record one final covers album.

In One, the covers record in question, O’Reilly is singing on borrowed time, and it shows: her voice changes subtly from track to track. But the songs are sweet nonetheless, and stunning, and poignant with her craft and talent as much as with her history. O’Reilly is strong, though she is clearly affected by her struggle and the ticking clock; all of this and more pours through even the most torn of tracks. And the song choices are inspired: every performance, from covers of REM, U2, Slipknot, Oasis, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Joe Henry, speaks to a wellstorm of emotion, spoken clearly and eloquently, in an act of true song ownership.

Her cover of One Headlight, alone, dark and dirty with dobro, perfectly pitched in every tone, makes this quite possibly the best cover album of the year.

That these songs represent the second act in a final play, the last farewell to a life lived in voice, is not where their strength lies. It is, instead, in the power of the musician, working with a tenacious instrument, and other people’s songs, to maximum effect.

And nowhere is this more prescient than in a song which contains not one, but two metaphoric images of light: the titular headlight, which Jakob Dylan claims represents the murkiness and half-sufficiency of creation when all seems lost, the struggle to create despite hindrance and overwhelming despair...and the sun, coming up to illuminate first a funeral, and then a county line, each one a boundary beyond which mystery greets us all.

O'Reilly's voice like a last dying light in the darkness. Dylan's hope dying as his album struggles to come to fruition. My rapid drop-in, halfhearted and meek, cobbled from old features because I've lost the nerve, and the time. One headlight, barely enough, dangerous on the highway of breakneck life, as we chase the sunrise, our hearts equal parts dread and hope.

Boyhowdy joined this blog in its first year, and served as editor for several years before reluctantly leaving it behind in a fruitless attempt to pare his life down to its necessary essentials. He misses you all, and reads every post.