Saturday, July 30, 2011

Circuses and Carnivals: That Song About the Midway

Joni Mitchell: That Song About the Midway


In British folksongs, gypsys represent freedom, or the yearning for it. A woman in the song runs off with a gypsy, but she is really seeking to escape the yoke of class expectations. In the United States, class consciousness is less overt, but the urge to run away is still there. We represent it in popular culture as the urge to run away and join the circus. Joni Mitchell’s That Song About the Midway combines these two archetypes, by presenting a woman who wants to run off with a potential lover in a traveling carnival. Mitchell’s narrator knows that this man probably won’t be good for her, but the “urge for going”, if you will, is still strong.

Circuses and Carnivals: Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!

The Beatles: Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite


A blog request!

This poster, nabbed in an antique shop, was the inspiration for John Lennon to write Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, one of the stellar songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently he wanted this song to recreate the sounds of the circus, down to the "sawdust on the floor." How many lyrics can you spot?

Not only didn't I know about the cribbed poster, I also didn't know this factoid, courtesy Wikipedia (aka, the blogger's bible): It was one of three songs from the Sgt. Pepper album that was banned on the BBC, supposedly because the phrase "Henry the Horse" combined two words that were individually known as slang for heroin.

Circuses and Carnivals: Five From The Midway

Dan Zanes: Wonderwheel


I went to a weekend fair
met someone while I was there
we put flowers in our hair
and rode the wonderwheel...

It sure sounds like a carnival, thanks to a rollicking accordion, a bouncy beat, and a subtle surfer's acoustic groove. And that's the point, for sure: after all, Dan Zanes is a master of the seemingly-casual kidsong, when in actuality, every note and tone is designed to add to the perfect festive mood, the inner child called to exquisitely.

Richard & Linda Thompson: The Wall of Death


Roller coaster as metaphor for the nauseating thrill-ride risk of the love affair? Yes, please. REM covers this one, but the Richard Thompson original is better by far, a perfect take from his mid-eighties solo work with ties to both true-blue rock and roll and his early folk rock sound with Fairport Convention.

David Wilcox: Top of the Roller Coaster


A bit more specific, softspoken southern folkie David Wilcox - a master of the sustained metaphor - looks at the roller coaster's moment of anticipation as a model of the inner heartjump turning thirty can bring. Love the way the bouncy tonality and sweet harmonies bring midlife crisis alive. So much joy.

Norah Jones: Carnival Town


A broad title belied in the first few lines - this is actually a song mostly about carnival rides and their motion as a reflection of life-movement, with each of the first two verses taking on a different ride (the third verse covers clowns). Loneliness on the downswing makes this a perfect lullaby.

Mary Gauthier: Merry Go Round


Gauthier holds off on her titular metaphor until the chorus, setting the stage with the violent and stark images of an early life of drug and family abuses that fit cleanly among the rest of the songs on powerful third album Filth & Fire. The carousel "horse" here is heroin; the turning of the wheel a path of addiction and recurrence - and so we come full circle, as it were, from the cheerfulness of Dan Zanes, proving the versatility of midway as macrocosm, reflecting the vastness of the inner world.

Circuses and Carnivals: Crocodile Man

Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer: Crocodile Man


Our Circuses and Carnivals theme is almost done, and no one has visited the freak show until now. There must be other songs that would work, but let me at least share a favorite of mine. I suppose that the term “freak show” is not appropriate for this song. The crocodile man tells the story from his point of view, as a human being just trying to get by as best he can. And that is exactly what makes this song so special. Oh, and a killer groove doesn’t hurt either.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Circuses and Carnivals: Send in the Clowns

Pat Martino: Send in the Clowns


Send in the Clowns, now a jazz standard but originally a 1973 show tune by Stephen Sondheim, is a slow, regretful ballad. This guitar version by Pat Martino, one of my new favorite artists (and I can't believe this is the first I've posted by him!), brings out the most soulful, introspective nuances of the song.

Martino has an astounding musical history: a prominent guitarist by 1980, he suffered an aneurism followed by brain surgery that caused him to lose all memory of how to play guitar. Painstakingly, he relearned, regaining his former abilities the hard way. You'd be hard-pressed to hear the difference between his "before" and "after" recordings unless you looked at the date. This one is from 1976.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Circuses and Carnivals: State Fair

Rasputina: State Fair


It may not be about a specific attraction at a carnival, but this song definitely fits the bill as far as being about the wonders of the summer carnival, or as we here in U.S. are accustomed more often than not, the fair. State fairs are notoriously pretty cheesy, and lacking integrity. Of course, if you ask me, that's part of the appeal. Where else can you ride a ferris wheel after eating your weight in food items that were unhealthy to begin with, but then the good people at the state fair had the good sense to fry and put on a stick, all while enjoying the lovely smell of menure? It really is a miraculous event. All that, and pig racing as well? The Ohio State Fair is currently running and I am not sure I am going to have a chance to go. This makes me sad. I do so love funnel cake.

But listening to this song helps ease the pain. Rasputina, the all cello rock band fronted by singer-songwriter Melora Creager in her creepy dusty corset collection sings her tongue-in-cheek ode to the State Fair. I am sure her tongue is in cheek as much as mine is. The events can hardly be taken too seriously, but are still seriously fun to attend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Circuses and Carnivals: Tight Rope

Leon Russell: Tight Rope


I'm up on the tightwire,
Flanked by life and the funeral pyre,
Putting on a show for you to see.

Leon Russell is best known as a session player, where his distinctive keyboards (mainly) and guitar back up too many rock, bluegrass, country, blues, and pop musicians to even begin to list. He wrote early hits for diverse folks like the Carpenters (A Song For You), George Benson (This Masquerade), Joe Cocker (Delta Lady)…and himself – this song was his first hit in 1972. Russell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last March.

Allmusic calls his style "swamp fusion," punched up by his Oklahoma-tinged vocals and bayou-laced lyrics. I'd certainly never heard music like this when I left suburbia for Ann Arbor. This album, Carney, became the most-played of my first freshman term, and I even got my roommate, a classical music kind of girl, hooked too. Goes to show that sometimes all we need to fall in love with new music is enough exposure.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Drums => Circuses and Carnivals: Tears of a Clown

The English Beat: Tears of a Clown


The sad clown is an irony that many artists have found irresistible. Smokey Robinson took it and created a pop music classic. But, for me, this version by The English Beat really does the job. The opening rat-tat-tat of the drums sets the stage musically, and that figure reappears throughout the song to push it forward. Tears of a Clown was the first ska cover I ever heard. The sheer surprise of it, plus the undeniable energy of the performance made this version a classic in its own right. Since then, I have noticed that many ska bands include an unlikely cover in their repertoire, and many of them are great. But, for, me this one has never been topped.