Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bible Stories: 40

U2: 40

Raised as the child of UCC (United Church of Christ) missionaries in a Moslem country where proselytizing was a crime, I come at religion from a different perspective. (Don’t we all?) I haven’t had much to do with formal religion for nigh on 40 years, but I did get a healthy dose of Protestant ethics and teachings in my childhood. And although I hardly ever even make it to Christmas Eve services any more, I still consider myself to have a religion. However, in the words of Taj Mahal: “ain’t nobody’s business but my own.”

We (Christians, Moslems, Jews) learn about a man called David (lived ~ 1000 BCE), who sang and played the harp for Saul when he was feeling blue (1 Samuel,16:23). This is the same David who killed Goliath - see Any Major Dude’s comments about the God of the Old Testament. Various biblical studies comment on David’s musical proclivity: it is partly through references to him/his singing that we know about singing as a part of worship. He is credited with writing almost half of the Psalms. There are references to his “crying” his songs that make me reflect on how the Moslem imam/pastor cries out (actually: sings) the call to prayer 5 times a day.

I noted above that we all come to our religion from different places. U2’s Bono is well known for his charitable work – a “sure sign” of religiosity. My research notes that his dad was Catholic but his stronger childhood religious influence was from his mom, an Anglican. However, like myself, his religion is personal. He says:

I'm a believer, but religion is the thing when God, like Elvis, has left the building. But when God is in the house, you get something else.

In his introduction to Canongate’s Pocket Canon printing of Psalms, he further explains:

Psalm 40 is interesting in that it suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and love will replace the very strict laws of Moses (in other words, fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me. Now it is a source of great comfort.

The lyrics of 40 from U2’s War album (1983), like numerous other U2 songs, include overt biblical references. In the Bible, Psalm 40 says, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth …” U2 sings, “He lift me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay.. He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm …”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bible Stories: Coat of Many Colors

Dolly Parton: Coat of Many Colors


On first listen, Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" seems to offer an ironic twist on the tale of Joseph and his coat of many colors. In the Book of Genesis story, Joseph's coat is an object of envy. His father, Jacob, makes him the coat. His brothers take it as an indication that Joseph is the favored son. In jealousy, they capture Joseph, rip the coat from his back and sell him into slavery. The brothers take their father Joseph's bloodied cloak to fool him into thinking his son has been devoured by wild beasts.

In her Appalachian version of the tale, Parton's colored coat is viewed not with jealousy, but with scorn. The children make fun of a ragtag frock Dolly's mother has handcrafted. She tries to convince her classmates her clothes are special, but there's no indication in the narrative that her friends are swayed. Still, Parton recognizes the value of the love her mother "sewed in every stitch" and closes by saying, despite being poor, "I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors my mama made for me."

With Parton's cheery disposition and little-girl voice, "Coat" comes off as heartwarming story of the power of maternal love. But, the backstory, which she told Chet Flippo in a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, is darker than that.

    That was a very sad and cutting memory...I remember the pain of it and the mockery. How the kids had tried to take my little coat off and I was just "sprouting"...and I didn't have a blouse on under it because I had done well just to have this little jacket to wear. So when the kids kept saying I didn't have a shirt on under it, I said I did, because I was embarrassed. So they broke the buttons off my coat. They locked me in a coat closet that day and held the door closed and it was black dark in there, and I just went into a screaming fit. I remembered all that and I was ashamed to even mention it, and for years I held it in.

"Coat of Many Colors" is testament to Parton's power as a songwriter. She's long been under-rated, despite having written one of the best-selling songs in the history of pop music ("I Will Always Love You"). "Coat of Many Colors" succeeds on many levels -- as a parable, as autobiography and as psychotherapy. And, it's a good song, too.

Bible Stories: Moses Don't Get Lost / Pharaoh

The Duhks: Moses Don't Get Lost


Crooked Still: Pharaoh


Passover begins tonight, and all around the world, Jewish families will gather with family and friends around the table to retell the story of the Israelites, their oppression, and their escape from the hands of Pharaoh's army into the vast and empty desert thanks to Moses, his brother Aaron, and the hand of God, who brought plagues from darkness to disease and death upon the Egyptian people in their attempt to persuade a slavemaster culture that their pyramids and comfort were not worth the wrath of a chosen people.

But modern Jews know well that how we retell that story is up to us: it is the engagement, and the resulting understanding that none of us are free until all chains are lifted from all peoples, which matters. As I wrote in a Passover songset over at Cover Lay Down several years ago,

The story of the Jews’ escape from slavery, and their emergence as a people, has much to offer as a modern parable of freedom. The seder meal is bittersweet, tinged with sorrow for those who had to die that others could be free. As a metaphor for struggle itself, it asks us to be aware that though freedom is paramount, violence is always a last, worst resort; patience and persistence go hand in hand.

The seder traditionally ends with a call to return to and remember the land of one’s ancestors, but in more and more households in this day and age, it’s the freedom to go or stay which is emphasized in the telling. Many modern haggadot frame the tale explicitly with calls to ongoing struggles for freedom throughout the world, and reminders that as long as one human remains enslaved, none of us are truly free. It’s a powerful message for children, and I’m proud to be able to share it with my own, and thus help plant the seed of human rights and social consciousness in yet another rising generation.

And when it comes to musical representation of that story, nothing beats the American folkways.

The early American black slave culture's adoption of the biblical story of the Israelites and their exodus as a parallel for their own story of oppression and potential release is well-documented; the gospel canon includes several such songs, and their echoes ring into civil rights movements here and abroad. Here, two modern takes on traditional tunes represent our journey to freedom: an appalachian fragment retuned by Tim O'Brien and subsequently recast by Arcadian folk band The Duhks, and a low, throbbing cello-driven newgrass revival of a Stanley Carter signature tune from New England based folk interpreters Crooked Still.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bible Stories: Before the Deluge

Jackson Browne: Before the Deluge


Jackson Browne’s landmark album Late For the Sky came out in 1974. The hippies of the 60’s, who had been so socially engaged in the efforts to end the Vietnam War, and, to a lesser extent, in the fight for civil rights, were seeking new outlets for all of that energy. Some disengaged from society, and formed communes. Others embraced the hedonism that would define the 70s in many eyes. Still others started careers that put them at odds with the values they had previously espoused. Jackson Browne wrote about this in Before the Deluge. He saw a parallel to the tale of the world turning to sin in the biblical story of the flood. For Browne, only those few who kept their ideals and continued to work for the common good would become, in essence, the family of Noah, the survivors. So here we see the power of Bible stories to speak to us in metaphors. Browne did not retell the story of the Flood; rather, he assumed that his listeners already knew the story, and used it to speak about the world he saw at the time. In doing so, Browne crafted a song that still speaks to us almost forty years later.

Bible Stories : Rivers of Babylon

The Melodians : Rivers Of Babylon


I was doing my all too rare church thing with my family when we read a very familiar sounding Psalm 137:

  By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, ...How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a strange land?

The psalm tells the story of Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Among Rastafarians, Babylon represents the unholy white political power that has been keeping black people down for centuries. The "river" may well be the Atlantic Ocean and "Zion" is Africa. In their song featured on the soundtrack to 1972's The Harder They Come, The Melodians also quote Psalm 19:

  Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bible Stories: It Ain't Necessarily So

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: It Ain’t Necessarily So [purchase]

Well, it needed to be said.  Belief and faith are wonderful things, but credulously swallowing fables and cautionary tales as being literally true leads nowhere good in the long run.  Sometimes a story is just a story, entertaining as it may be, and sometimes the real joy is to be found in the telling of it: the delivery, the timing, the relish with which a storyteller delivers his tale.

Which, of course, brings us to Ella and Louis.  Satchmo's cornet is incisive and true, his voice grizzled and wry as he chews upon Ira Gershwin's sly Biblical observations, while Ella is, as ever, clear and sweet, exuding innocence while her words belie that facade.  The joke, though, is on us: the eponymous lyric is sung to a tune based upon the aliyah blessing that calls a congregation to hear a reading from Torah.  Perhaps we aren't to believe everything we read in the Old Testament, but its influence on our society is inherent in everything up to and including the doubt expressed within these verses.  And so, in keeping with the spirit of inevitability, I wish you all a very Happy Easter.  After all, if you can't beat 'em...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bible Stories : Joshua Fit The Battle

Elvis Presley : Joshua Fit The Battle


Elvis Presley spent Halloween of 1960 recording this traditional song for his first gospel album, His Hand In Mine. Elvis knew something about the power of music. But no matter how much he shook his hips and sneered, its doubtful he could have brought down the walls of Jericho the way the Bible says Joshua and his army of Israelites did with their trumpets.

Elvis loved gospel music. As the liner notes on His Hand In Mine read "Church music and hymns made up the first music Elvis Presley ever heard. Church music was also the first music Elvis ever sang.  It was as natural to him as nursery rhymes and Mother Goose are to other children". Elvis dedicated the album to his mother.

Bible Stories: Jesus Met The Woman At The Well

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Jesus Met The Woman At The Well


For some of the best music referring to the Christian faith (not always uncritically), Nick Cave is the man. Here he covered a popular gospel traditional, which appeared on his 1986 album of covers, Kicking Against The Pricks (the LP’s title itself is a Bible reference, from Acts 26:14).

“Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” abbreviates the high noon encounter in Samaria from John’s gospel. The song takes the bit where Jesus reads her mind regarding her five ex-husbands and the current live-in lover, and she’s so impressed by this that she identifies Jesus as “the prophet”.

Here’s how St John describes the conversation: “Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ Touché, Jesus.

The idea of the story is that Jesus not only approaches a social outcast, which was rather frowned upon (but, being in Samaria, which was hostile to Jews, he was an outcast as well), but that she in turn could be “healed” from what she evidently acknowledges as her sins. That was a new way of doing things at a time when women such as the one at the well were more likely to be stoned to death than to be counseled.

Nick Cave would like that, I suspect. He rejects organised religion, and doesn’t call himself religious, but he says that “I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a god”.

Bible Stories: The Purple Robe

The Lewis Family: The Purple Robe


I’ve always loved a certain gospel song called “The Purple Robe,” also known as “The Scarlet Purple Robe.” It’s “a story so unkind in the Holy book we find, And it tells how Jesus stood alone one day, False accused and there condemned yet they found no fault with Him.”

I’ve heard the song done by several artists, particularly among bluegrass musicians. For example, Ralph Stanley sings it with that old-time Clinch Mountain sound. And it’s certainly among the best hits and most requested numbers of The Lewis Family from Lincolnton, Georgia. Known as "The First Family of Bluegrass Gospel Music," they’ve inspired my own bluegrass group (Umpqua Valley Bluegrass Band) to add this song to its repertoire about a year ago.

The Lewis Family has sung together for over fifty years, and they’ve been great song carriers of bluegrass gospel material. They had their own Augusta, Ga. radio show from 1954-92. In 2006, The Lewis Family was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame. In 2009, the group officially retired, but only after winning two more Dove Awards (Gospel music's highest award). Some family members, however, continue the tradition in a newer band (since 2010) called “The Lewis Tradition.”

“The Purple Robe” is based on a story in John 19 that tells how Jesus was sentenced to be crucified. Pilate had taken Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers “placed upon his head piercing thorns and blood stained red.” They clothed Jesus in a purple robe, and they mocked and hit him. Pilate had no basis for a charge against Jesus. But the multitude cried “Take him away! Crucify him!” When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, including his seamless garment which was woven in one piece from top to bottom. As the song’s chorus concludes, “His raiment was a scarlet purple robe.” References in the Bible to the purple (or scarlet) robe can also be found in Mark 15 and Matthew 27.

Many have expressed views about the meaning of the scarlet purple robe. Purple was a color of royalty. As a military cloak, the robe was used to mock Jesus of his royalty as king of the Jews. Others point out that the perfectly woven garment is a likeness of Jesus’ flawless nature. The robe’s purple coloring also represents a perfect blending of blue and red to indicate royalty and humanity. It’s also interesting that about a quarter million mollusks would have been harvested from the Mediterranean Sea to make an ounce of purple die to color the robe’s thread. Thus, a purple robe signifies great sacrifice. This song certainly reminds you of the crucifixion of Jesus and gets you thinking about the meaning of the purple robe.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Bible Stories: Samson and Delilah

Grateful Dead: Samson and Delilah


The song Samson and Delilah is often credited to Rev Gary Davis, although he may not have been the original author. Davis was a real reverend, having been ordained as a Baptist minister. But the song is a secular retelling of the story from the Bible. There is no mention of Samson’s promise to God to neither touch wine nor cut his hair. Instead, the song focuses on Samson as a man whose woman wronged him. That makes the song consistent with many blues songs of the day.

The Grateful Dead added Samson and Delilah to their repertoire in 1976, and it was a regular feature of their live shows through 1978. It had a piano part played by Keith Godshaux, and his wife Donna added a soulful backing vocal. Donna was an erratic singer, often off pitch badly, but she was great on those rare occasions when she was in control of this issue. The Dead, however, did not make an official live recording of Samson and Delilah until 1980 for the album Dead Set, the version heard here. By this time, Keith and Donna were no longer part of the band. Brent Mydland taken over on keyboards, with his high tenor replacing Donna’s alto. Mydland had much better pitch control than Donna, but none of her soulfulness. He also played organ instead of piano on the song. For all of these reasons, The Dead stopped playing Sampson and Delilah regularly once Mydland joined the band. That said, the song still sounds great to me here, and has more spark than the studio version with Keith and Donna on the album Terrapin Station. The song opens with drummers Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzmann laying down a rhythm that is somewhere between a Bo Didley and a Second Line shuffle. Years later, in 2002, Bob Weir and his band Ratdog would play the song at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, and they would be joined on stage by some local horn players. The sound quality of the recordings I heard of this are poor, and the musicians clearly did this without a rehearsal, but the jam hints at how glorious a full-on New Orleans treatment of the song could be. The next time any of you talk to the Neville Brothers, please suggest it.

Bible Stories: Psalm 1

"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the councel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful..." Let's continue our bible studies on the sunny isle of Jamaica, with the one and only Michael James Williams, better known as Prince Far I. Nearly everything the man with the voice of thunder put out in his long career gets me in an irie spirit, but his '76 debut Psalms For I, lyrically based on the old testament psalms and the Lord's prayer, is probably most precious of all. "Wake out of your slumber and answer your call..."

Bible Stories: Job

Milton Wright: Job


Milton Wright, brother of soul star Betty (and not the father of Wilbur and Orville, obviously), on this track from his 1977 Spaced album, allows just enough of his upbeat soul vibe to catch our attention before he casually asks us what we know about Job, the Old Testament personality. We learn that Job “eschewed evil” – and how many times have you heard the word “eschew” being used on a groovy soul number with a cool flute riff? – and feared the Lord.

Now, the God of the Old Testament was a pretty rough deity. He almost had Abraham slaughter his son, and he took everything from poor Job, a thoroughly good guy, and delivered him to Satan. It was, of course a test, to see whether Job would curse God for what seems to be a cruel abandonment. Job complains a bit, but sticks by God, who not only returns Job’s wealth many times over, but also gives him seven sons and three beautiful daughters. Job supposedly died at the age of 140.

Wright then turns his attention to Moses, another biblical figure who lived to a ridiculous age. Poor guy had to lead the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land, a trip that lasted an improbable 40 years, and as he stood on Mount Nebo and saw the big prize, he dropped dead.

The OId Testament is not always a heartwarming document…

Bible Stories: Man Gave Names

Bob Dylan: Man Gave Names

The Bible tells us that "in the beginning was the word" (John I), and to the extent that <the word> is based on sound, the logical extension of this is "and the music sounded good." Genesis tells us that "in the beginning, there was God" (and God is the Word).

Also in Genesis, the Bible says that "God ... formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name ..."

Bob Dylan didn't really turn me on much in the 60s. I mean, I recognized his authoring talent, and the music was all right, but it wasn't until Nashville Skyline and then New Morning that I liked what I heard. Now, I confess to not being overly informed about the details of the man's well documented life. However, I assume that most people know that he was raised Jewish. Many may not know that it was about the time Slow Train Coming came out ('79) that Dylan converted to Christianity (click to read an informative account)

The list of songs on Slow Train actually makes it quite obvious that he got religion : Gotta Serve Somebody, When He Returns, Precious Angel, and of course Man Gave Names. But on the surface, there isnt anything in the titles that to the layman that says Christ any more than say, Mohammed. Islam speaks of angels and of dedicating one's life to God, but my knpowledge of the Quran says that God and not man named the animals just as he set out the conditions of their lives. And for all the divisiveness of some voices today, it is instructive to note that the Quran includes Christians and Jews who believe among those who will rise again on the Judgement Day.

The playful humor - both in words and musical style- of Man Gave Names To All The Animals is part of what I like about the song. The lyrics still make me smile and chuckle. The rhymes are still cute, and especially the last unfinished line typifies Dylan's light stroke with the subtle depth. Just like you know what he's not saying.

Surprise! => Bible Stories: Supper’s Ready

Genesis: Supper’s Ready

I was going to write about this song for the “Surprise!” theme, but instead decided to use it for the Bible Stories theme. And yet, I am daunted by the prospect of writing about “Supper’s Ready,” a nearly 23 minute suite. It either is a masterpiece, filled with complex, varied music that was expertly played, with odd time signatures and brilliant, impressionistic lyrics, or it embodies all that was wrong with progressive rock in 1972. Or maybe both. And in keeping with that theme, this is a long and somewhat twisting post.

I was introduced to Genesis in high school by my friend Chris. At the time, we started with the early Phil Collins fronted albums, but as we pawed our way through the cutout bins at Korvettes, we educated ourselves about the Peter Gabriel led version of the band. I know that we were both completely blown away by “Supper’s Ready,” which took up pretty much the whole second side of the Foxtrot album. I know that we listened to it over and over, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. In retrospect, it is incredible that they created this song in their early 20’s, only a few years older than I was when I first heard it.

With the benefit of the Internet, I’ve gotten some guidance about “Supper’s Ready,” some directly from the perpetrators, and others from people with more time and knowledge who have tried to interpret it. I am by no means a Bible scholar, so I’m relying on others for much of this discussion.

According to Peter Gabriel, the idea for the song came from an experience that he had with his then-wife Jill, who went into a trance and started speaking in voices which led him to write a song about the struggle between good and evil. No drugs or alcohol were involved, Gabriel insists. He has been quoted as saying it is "a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible....I'll leave it at that." The title refers to "great supper of God" referred to in the Book of Revelation. Here is a nice concise description of what the Book of Revelation is about:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to John by God “to show his servants what must soon take place.” This book is filled with mysteries about things to come. It is the final warning that the world will surely end and judgment will be certain. It gives us a tiny glimps of heaven and all of the glories awaiting those who keep their robes white. Revelation takes us through the great tribulation with all its woes and the final fire that all unbelievers will face for eternity. The book reiterates the fall of Satan and the doom he and his angels are bound for. We are shown the duties of all creatures and angels of heaven and the promises of the saints that will live forever with Jesus in the New Jerusalem.
But this is a music blog, so let’s talk about that, a little. The song consists of seven parts. The first three parts begin the story of two lovers, who change form and go on a mystical journey culminating in an intense battle. Part 4 slows down and ponders the aftermath of the battle—until there is a surprise—The narrator sings “We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower.” And an almost Pythonesque voice says “A flower?”

At which point, the odd, “Willow Farm” section begins, an almost vaudevillian sounding piece with strange vocal effects and lyrical word play, but which continues the theme of transmutation (which is a common motif in Gabriel’s lyrics). Then, a second surprise--a door slams, a whistle blows and a voice says “all change,” followed by even odder vocal effects and word play. I’m pretty certain that the Pythonesque humor is no coincidence—the show was running in England during this time period. Genesis and Monty Python were on the same record label and, apparently, the band invested in “The Holy Grail.” Not to mention the fact that Brand X, a band which Collins was a sometimes member of, released an album that included a song called “Algon (Where An Ordinary Cup Of Drinking Chocolate Costs £8,000,000,000),” a direct reference to a Python sketch, and for which Michael Palin wrote the liner notes. But I digress.

Now, it is time to get to the Bible part—the Apocalypse in 9/8 section. The program that the band handed out when they played “Supper’s Ready” said: "At one whistle the lovers become seeds in the soil, where they recognise other seeds to be people from the world in which they had originated. While they wait for Spring, they are returned to their old world to see Apocalypse of St John in full progress. The seven trumpeteers cause a sensation, the fox keeps throwing sixes, and Pythagoras (a Greek extra) is deliriously happy as he manages to put exactly the right amount of milk and honey on his corn flakes."

We have direct references to images from the Book of Revelation, including Magog (representing the enemies of God), fire from the skies, dragons rising from the sea, the number 666, and seven trumpets playing (here, though, they are playing “sweet rock and roll”). But, it appears that good triumphs over evil, and in the last section, the music triumphantly states, with bells chiming (again directly referring to Revelations):

There's an angel standing in the sun, and he's crying with a loud voice,
"This is the supper of the mighty One",
The Lord of Lords,
King of Kings,
Has returned to lead His children home,
To take them to the new Jerusalem.

I hope that you are still with me. I probably haven’t listened to “Supper’s Ready” all the way through for years, but have done so a few times this weekend, and it still has that same powerful effect that it had on me 35 years ago. Give yourself 23 minutes and listen to it, and let me know if I am crazy.

My goal is to post about a song shorter than 3 minutes next week.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Surprise!: ΔMi−1 = −∂Σn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C{i}Fji[n − 1] + Fexti[[n−1]]


Aphex Twin’s music is consistently surprising, and whether or not that’s an oxymoron is irrelevant. This song contains many unusual sounds, but even more surprising than how it sounds is how it looks. By applying a spectrograph to “ΔMi−1 = −∂Σn=1NDi[n][Σj∈C{i}Fji[n − 1] + Fexti[[n−1]]”, the viewer/listener can observe a modified image of its creator, Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin).

This song, commonly known as “[Equation]” or “[Formula]” was only released as a B-side with the Windowlicker single, and is currently unavailable to purchase for online download. Watch the video above to catch some images imbedded in the frequencies, most notably the face portrayed above at at the end of the song, beginning at 5:28.

James has embedded images in other songs, and is not the only musician to construct sections of songs in this manner. (For example, Canadian electronic artist Venetian Snares designed a song for the 2001 album Songs about My Cats called “Look”, which consists entirely of reverse-spectrographed images of--you guessed it--cats.)

Spectrograms are easy to create with today’s sound technology and software, and turning an image into sounds is much simpler than one might expect. Go get a program and see what you sound like.

Surprise! Sussex Ghost Story

John Wesley Harding: Sussex Ghost Story


There are many things to like about John Wesley Harding's "Sussex Ghost Story." From Harding's 2004 Adam's Apple, the instrumentation sounds almost like you would expect a Poe story to sound: A gloomy, almost foreboding string arrangement, Harding's off-kilter narrative and an interesting story twist at the end. It's also one of those rare story songs that holds up well after repeated listening. I've had it on my iPod for seven years no, and I never skip it when Shuffle selects it.

Surprise!: Conversations

Andy Robinson: Conversations


Writing and recording music "Conversations" was an extended series of surprises, some with the creative process, and others with relationships in my life.

The song was born in a haphazard way. One night I felt like recording, but I didn't have a song to work on. I pulled out a snare drum, some brushes, and other percussion instruments. I set about recording a groove. Since I had no preconceived idea of what I was doing, on each track I’d stop, start and change my parts at random. By night’s end, I had eight or nine tracks of messy percussion. I gave the session a non-descript working title, then I shut down my machine and forgot about it.

Sometimes it's as if you subconsciously plan little surprises for yourself. Months later, I saw that title, had no idea what it was, and I opened the file. "Oh, yeah, it's that weird percussion jam…" I decided that I liked parts of it, so I picked up my dulcimer and recorded the first chord progression that came to mind. Now it sounded sort of like a song, so I ended up spending quite a bit of time editing the percussion to make it sound like a real jam. It took…ahem…a surprising amount of editing, that's for sure.

Like most people who record, I listen to my works-in-progress while I drive, and I sing along with them. I decided I wanted a flute to play a melody on this thing, so I was driving along, singing a high part, trying to approximate what a flute might do.

The part was actually too high for me to sing comfortably. When I got home, I experimented with electronically changing the pitch of my voice, and I recorded an interesting, weird-sounding reference track for my future flautist. I wasn't too careful, because I assumed the track was going to be replaced with a lovely-sounding flute.

When I played the new mix for my brother with no explanation, it certainly surprised him. His head snapped around when the vocal came in. "Who is that?" I told him it was just a temporary guide track for a flute part, and he almost hit the ceiling. He said, "It sounds amazing - don't re-do it! I thought it was a little old Chinese lady!"

I can't say I was entirely sold on the concept of sounding like an elderly Oriental woman, but I promised Doug that I'd think about it. In retrospect, perhaps it's not that surprising that I took his advice and used the track. His instincts are usually pretty good.

But the biggest and best surprise was that I got to use my mother-in-law's joyful laughter as a lead instrument on this song. Around this time, I'd begun to carry a hand-held digital recorder everywhere I went, recording stuff for fun. One night, we'd finished dinner with the in laws and were hanging out, drinking wine and talking. I had my little recorder running. Otto made a joke and Diane apparently thought it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. She began laughing, and she laughed until tears came. Whenever she stopped, it was only a shaky moment before she started up again. Otto began imitating her, which only made her laugh harder.

I had already recorded various other conversations, because I'd been thinking of turning the song into a mellow folk version of those Sixties pop records which sound like a party going on during the session. There was one by Marvin Gaye. "Here Comes My Baby," and "Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35," and various Beatles recordings also had that party vibe.

I took all these conversation tracks into my studio, and I mixed them into the arrangement. I got yet another surprise. Diane's laughter was obviously the magic ingredient in my mix. You couldn't possibly rehearse or plan such a great "performance." I knew she had to be featured, so I rode the fader and had her rise up in the mix, as if she were an instrument playing a solo during one section of the song.

I didn't tell anyone except my wife what I'd done. When the Exotic America album was released in 2004, I played "Conversations" for Otto and Diane, as a surprise. Otto cried when he heard it.

Today, Diane is in the final stages of dementia. She still occasionally shows traces of her loving personality and free spirit. Most people capture moments that honor their loved ones in home videos and photos. I make instrumental music, which is a little more open to interpretation, but in this case, causes and conditions in my life allowed me to create a loving tribute to the exceptional mother of my wonderful wife. I'm very grateful that I could do it, and I'm very proud of "Conversations."

Guest Post by Andy Robinson

Surprise!: April Fool

Brave Combo: April Fool


Imagine my awe and dismay when I was once asked to review an album by Brave Combo called Holidays! on the reputable Rounder Records label. Brave Combo surprised me well when I listened to the cut identified for April 1st. “I got you good. You had no clue. What a joke! I’m so cool. You got fooled. April Fool!”

When formed in 1979 in Denton, Texas, Brave Combo called themselves a New Wave polka band. Three decades later, they've proven they’re much more with influences of country, jazz, rock ‘n' roll, surf, blues, Celtic, Tex-Mex, Latin, Klezmer, big band, and salsa. And, of course, there’s plenty of shock, disbelief and novelty in their music too.

That explains Brave Combo's moniker and cryptic genre, but it's really not all that baffling. Behind the scenes, the band is very serious about their tunes. It shows in their arrangements and musicianship. For us, music is a rather personal thing, and we usually listen to it for enjoyment and stimulation. Holidays! succeeds because there's something for everyone, and the album reminds us to lighten up and not take life too seriously. Just like “April Fool,” the entire album is playful, foolish and often frenetic festivity.

Brave Combo's prime directive is to "break down people's perceptions about what's cool to like in music…. to shake up people's ideas about what they label hip, or right or wrong." They also say that acceptance of polka and other dance rhythms can help bring about world peace. If people start dancing together, they'll also learn to respect each other's cultures too. So put your inhibitions and restraints aside…Get up and cut a rug.

Let Brave Combo’s music surprise you. Their Holidays! album gives us reason to pull the album out at 19 different festive occasions throughout the year. It’s a fun, chronological journey. They begin with "Auld Lang Syne" and "New Year's Polka," then take us through to "Mambo in a Brand New Year."

So how did their Holidays! album come about back in 2004? It seems that Larry King, producer of the TM Comedy Central Network, was on the lookout for good original songs that met their criteria for morning radio shows. With over a dozen albums out on the Rounder label, Brave Combo (Jeffrey Barnes, Alan Emert, Carl Finch, Bubba Hernandez, Danny O'Brien) took on the challenge. Guests on Holidays! include Rob Avsharian, Joe Cripps, Milo Deering, and a whole host of background singers.

While definitely eccentric, Brave Combo has built a legion of fans who like their outlandish song surprises with a grooving, danceable beat. Dr. Demento would appreciate them too.

Surprise!: Save Your Kisses For Me

Brotherhood Of Man: Save Your Kisses For Me


ABBA’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest on 6 April 1974 changed the contest. Whereas in the past, the national judges broadly favoured chanson type tunes (even Sandie Shaw’s delightful “Puppet On A String” sounded continental), they now liked their groups poppy and, importantly, co-ed. In 1975, Dutch outfit Teach-In won with the “Ding-A-Dong”, an ironic deconstruction of Hegel’s epistemological proposition (“In order to understand [and possibly accept] the Phenomenology of Spirit, one must except the notion of the self-sublating nature of finitude” etc).

The following year, Great Britain dispatched to The Hague an uglier version of ABBA in the form of Brotherhood of Man. Their entry, “Save Your Kisses For Me”, was already a big hit in Britain, so it was not unknown when BoM, as the band’s ultra fans possibly called the group, put themselves at the mercy of the international juries, with their bouncy tune, lazily conceived and vaguely bouncy choreography and a frontman who most likely couldn’t bounce, but did look vaguely creepy.

BoM (although I’m not an ultra fan, I prefer the abbreviation) won with 164 points, ahead of France’s entry, “Un, deux, trois” by Grade 1 maths teacher Catherine Ferry, with 147 points. Seven countries out of 17 gave BoM the top score of 12, four the next highest score of 10. France, always ready to spot a rival, contributed a measly seven (the UK gave their entry eight points). Italy didn’t dig BoM, and offered four points. And Ireland virtually urinated on HRH Queen Elizabeth herself, giving BoM a disdainful three points.

So, where’s the twist in the lyrics of “Save Your Kisses For Me”? Well, and here I better issue a ***SPOILER ALERT***, the person whom the singer asks to save all their kisses turns out to be only three. Charity of thought dictates that the song’s narrator is intended to represent the little girl’s dad.

The idea for the surprise denouement was borrowed from a 1954 song by The Ames Brothers, “The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane”, in which the eponymous female turned out to be just nine-months old.

Surprise!: Imagine/Walk on the Wild Side

The Party Party: Imagine-Walk On the Wild Side


Here's probably one of the most complex mashups I've ever listened to, created in 2007 by the artist(s) The Party Party. I don't want to say too much about it and spoil the surprise. I will mention, though, that perhaps we're going about American elections the wrong way and instead we should shift the whole mess over to American Idol.

Surprise!: Lovely Day

Lovely Day

(Previously unreleased)

"Surprise!"  Well, probably not: on April Fools' Day we steel ourselves against believing anything.  If aliens were ever to invade they would be wise to pick April 1st as their day of attack: we'd collectively refuse to believe that anything was happening up until their tentacles were firmly wrapped around our throats.  We probably wouldn't even believe it then!  It's hard to surprise people at the best of times, but once you essentially tell someone in advance that surprises are in store it becomes more than impossible.

One thing that never fails though: when I tell people I used to be a rapper. I mean, I don't look the part for one thing.  For another, I don't really listen to Hip-Hop anymore.  All said, it always seems to sound entirely unlikely to people.  And rightly so: it sounds unlikely to me, and I was there at the time!

So in the spirit of our magical day of surprises, here's my special gift to you: an unreleased track from more years ago than I care to remember.  There's a voice on there that may well be mine, but refusing as I do to believe that I was ever actually that young, you may all consider yourselves free to go ahead and think of some witty pseudonym for the guy.  Meanwhile, I hope that today finds you all as unscathed and un-pranked as humanly possible.

Surprise!: The Stranger

Bobby Bare: The Stranger

[purchase (CD only)]

I have no idea how "The Stranger" came to be written (by Shel Silverstein), recorded (by Bobby Bare) or released by RCA Victor, the same label that brought us Elvis, Sgt. Barry Sadler and the soundtrack to The Sound of Music.

It is the weirdest song Bobby Bare ever recorded. And that's saying something, because he recorded a lot of weird songs. "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life." "Bathroom Tissue Paper Letter," about a Dear John letter composed on Charmin. "Quaaludes Again," in which the protagonist makes love to furniture. "The Jogger," in which a truck driver gets ticked at Jesus for running along the road. Those are nothing compared to this one.

Adding to the strangeness: "The Stranger" appeared on an album called Cowboys and Daddys, the title track of which is a cuddly duet between Bare Sr. and the loveable lad who became the artist known as Bobby Bare Jr., about how much a divorced father loves his only boy. Awww.

Then, after that sweetness, comes this one. With a surprise...well, more like a shock...right there in the middle. Even after the song gets started, I don't think you can imagine what's going to happen. Go ahead and listen, you little ol' brown-eyed darling, you.

Surprise!: The Mariner’s Revenge Song

The Decemberists: The Mariner’s Revenge Song

I wrote previously about seeing Richard Thompson in England with my family. A few years later, we took our second, and to date, last, family European trip to Amsterdam. One of the highlights was seeing The Decemberists at the Paradiso, a legendary club that holds about 1500 people, standing, in a former church. The Stones, U2, Prince, The Police, Bowie and Pink Floyd have all played this relatively small, but wonderful, venue.

The Decemberists were a band that we were just getting into. I love them because of the complexity of their music, their literate lyrics, often based on myth, folklore or historical themes, and their willingness to embrace being pompous. Others, I know, hate them for exactly the same reasons. You know a band is a bit pretentious when their most recent album of new material is hailed as a move toward simplicity, but still contains lyrics such as “Hetty Green/Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab/(Know what I mean?)”

It was an excellent show, even though the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, making it a bit hard to see the stage, even for me, who is 6’ 1”. In addition to the great music, they are just fun to see. At one point, Colin Meloy, the lead singer, led the crowd in “mid-show calisthenics”. And later, the band and audience reenacted the 1667 Battle of Chatham, a successful Dutch attack on the British Navy. For me, that show turned The Decemberists from a band I liked into one of my favorites. And it was another musical experience that my whole family enjoyed together.

Despite the nautical theme, the band didn’t play “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” that night. Apparently, they had put it on hiatus for a while. It is, in many ways, the prototypical Decemberists song. It sounds like an old shanty, it is about adventures on the seas, takes place in the belly of a whale, and concerns violence and revenge. And it uses language not common in rock music, such as “rake and roustabout,” “consumptive,” “privateer,” “priory” and “magistrate.”

The song is sung by a young seaman to an older captain, in the belly of a whale. The captain doesn’t recognize the younger man, who reminds the older man of how he had taken advantage of the younger man’s mother, caused her to lose all her property and die. He tells the captain how the mother swore her son to obtain revenge on her deathbed. The younger man explains how he bided his time until he found the object of his revenge and hired on with a privateer to track down and avenge his mother. But just as he was about to be able to kill the evil doer, a whale attacked the ships and killed everyone except the narrator and his nemesis. At the end of the song, the narrator informs his companion:

It gives my heart great joy
To see your eyes fill with fear
So lean in close
And I will whisper
The last words you'll hear

I suspect that that the captain was pretty surprised.