Saturday, July 7, 2012

National Celebrations: Born On The 4th Of July

Tom Paxton: Born On The 4th Of July


If the first person narrative of this song sounds familiar, it's because singer-songwriter Tom Paxton based his anti-war anthem on the same autobiography that Oliver Stone transformed into the 1989 Tom Cruise vehicle of the same name. And yet I've always thought the song is more coherent, more cohesive, than the film, in part because the pacing and plot of the life story of Vietnam vet turned activist Ron Kovic so closely parallel the structure of the political folk ballad. As such, in its era, the song made for an especially effective political litmus test: indeed, whether you see this song as patriotic, or instead interpret it as a threat to patriotism, continues to be a strong predictor of voting habits and party affiliation in modern western culture.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

National Celebrations: A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days

Stan Freberg: A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days/Declaration of Independence


Let's mark U.S. Independence Day with a skit and Broadway musical number depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. Except, Stan Freberg's United States of America Volume 1, first released in 1961, never became a Broadway musical.

Comedy records played a different role in the 1950s and 1960s than they do today. Before VCRs and DVRs, comedy albums were the only way consumers could get non-musical entertainment on demand. In the lull between Elvis and the Beatles, comedy records frequently outsold music-filled albums. The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the best-selling LP of 1961, and Vaughn Meader's Kennedy satire, The First Family ruled the charts a year later. These successes prompted record labels to boost their spoken-word comedy output. Comedian Stan Freberg recorded many popular novelty records for Capitol in the 1950s. He convinced the label to commit to a four-volume set "tour de farce" of American history. Freberg took a then-unheard of 13 weeks to record the first album. "Stan Freberg was a great perfectionist," recording engineer Jay Ranellucci told Billboard magazine in 1996. "If you had a pause that was a quarter-second too long, he'd know it."

The record is hilarious -- sharp and snappy dialogue, complemented by show tunes arranged by Billy May, who put together charts for Sinatra's records. Despite its many virtues, United States of America Volume 1 was not quite the success Capitol had hoped for, topping out at 34 on the charts. There were the predictable complaints from parties who didn't take kindly to satires of America's glorious history. But, the additional volumes were mostly scuttled by an ill-fated attempt to bring Freberg's work to the stage. He had a spectacular falling out with Broadway producer David Merrick. Freberg claims Merrick told him to "Take Lincoln out of the Civil War -- he doesn't work." Bad feelings and contractual obligations kept Volume 2 from seeing the light of day until 1996. Given shifting tastes and Freberg's age, it's unlikely the additional sets will be recorded.

In this take on the 4th of July story, the music starts at the 4:07 mark. Freberg plays Benjamin Franklin and is joined by Byron Kane as Thomas Jefferson and Coleen Collins as the apocryphal Sylvia Franklin. My favorite line: "Come on, all we want to do is hold a few truths to be self-evident."

National Celebrations: 4th of July

X: Fourth of July


Two weeks in a row of me going with the obvious choice. But, sometimes the obvious choice can be a good one. Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July" is a great song. It's not necessarily about patriotism, and yet it is. Alvin's lyrics ostensibly tell the story of a deteriorating relationship. (Could his declaration "We gave up trying so long ago" refer to both his romance and his nation?) It's also a tale of working class poverty, a familiar theme in Alvin's music. The song's narrator lives "on the lost side of town" and isn't getting July 4 as a day off from work. And why are those darn kids shooting off fireworks?! Oh, yeah: "We forgot all about the Fourth of July!"

Despite the despair, the song ends on an optimistic note. "Whatever happens, I apologize," he tells his wife/lover. And he finds an appreciation for those kids -- Mexican kids, he specifies throughout the song -- celebrating their country and the American spirit.

Pretty good songwriting for a guy who started out as "merely" an ace rockabilly guitarist. Through a long career, Alvin has grown so much as a composer that he's now as much known for his songwriting as his virtuoso guitar work.

In a book about the influences of Townes Van Zandt's songwriting (I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt), Alvin identifies with another Texas songwriting legend: "I'd probably be more in the Guy Clark camp, because my songwriting style is more journalistic....The drama is in the stories, in life is where dreams and reality collide. We go through the day-to-day life...and that's where the collision between how we think it should be and the humdrum of survival is."

"Fourth of July" is Alvin's signature song, and he's recorded it many times. My favorite remains the first version, from his brief stint with X, on which he plays guitar, with John and Exene handling vocals.

National Celebrations: Sverige

Kent: Sverige

 Funny thing, patriotism.  We wrap ourselves in gaudily-coloured material, beat our chests, assure ourselves that the land on which we stand is somehow superior to that on which anyone else is standing and, increasingly once more, we scowl suspiciously at the somehow other, on the off chance that it's their fault we're so miserable all the time.  There is a curious flip-side as well: the feeling that the land we so love is in some way quaint or parochial, and as such faintly risible, like a drunk, embarrassing Uncle with whom we put up on special occasions but is best disregarded at all other times.

Me, I've always been an outsider.  Of neither one place nor another, my blood a cocktail of races and creeds, I've always been slightly suspicious of blind patriotism by simple dint of having so often been confronted by the ugliness of racism and xenophobia.  By the same token, though, it sometimes takes an outsider to see the magic in a place: too many Swedes seem nowadays to fall into the latter of the two categories described above, missing the true wonder of this green, clean and caring place.  It's often telling that the people who appreciate it most seem to be those who have spent time away - after all, one never sees what one takes for granted until it's just not there anymore.

Sverige is ambiguous, to an extent.  Perhaps Joachim Berg falls into the second category, perhaps not: he's a wily enough lyricist to leave that to individual interpretation. One thing is certain, though: as the inevitable shower starts to fall on another Swedish midsummer, there is room at the table for everyone.  A schnapps glass is raised in toast:  Welcome, welcome in, whoever you are, wherever you're from. Now, that's the Sweden I love. Skål!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

National Celebrations: Zimbabwe

Bob Marley: Zimbabwe


In the country formerly known as Rhodesia, it was Zimbabwe’s Liberation War that resulted in their independence from Britain on April 18, 1980. Bob Marley was invited to the country’s independence celebration, and he sang a song he wrote in their honor called “Zimbabwe.” Marley opens with these profound lyrics:

Every man got a right to decide his own destiny,
And in this judgment there is no partiality.
So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle,
‘Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.

In the song, Marley pleads for “Africans a-liberate Zimbabwe.” Marley is now deceased, and he’d be saddened that the country is still experiencing transition and turmoil. Marley’s song was optimistic but also cautionary. Since 2000, the U.S. has condemned the Zimbabwean Government’s record on human rights and rule of law. The country needs to embrace democracy, as well as provide freedom and empowerment for all its citizens. Marley’s song still speaks relevancy for Zimbabweans today – “We’ll ‘ave to fight (we gon’ fight), fighting for our rights!” …. and it’s very simply because “every man got a right to decide his own destiny.

Monday, July 2, 2012

National Celebrations : Slovania

Laibach : Slovania


For their 2006 album, Volk (German for "people" but Slovenian for "wolf) , the controversial Slovenian industrial group Laibach recorded thirteen songs inspired by national or pan-national anthems including those of the United States, Russia and a surprisingly touching version of "Hey, Slavs", the anthem of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

  Laibach hasn't done anything without at least half its audience wildly misinterpreting its actions. Mostly because Laibach appreciates the monetary value of controversy. The band often dresses in military uniforms and advertises concerts with posters in styles that recall Nazi Germany. When asked to clear all of this up by denouncing totalitarianism , the band issued the statement: "We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter".That doesn't really settle the issue and I'm guessing that's the point.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

National Celebrations: Canada Day, Up Canada Way

Stompin' Tom Connors: Canada Day, Up Canada Way

[out of print]

Canada Day, or Fête du Canada en français, is the national day of Canada, a federal statutory holiday celebrating the anniversary of the July 1, 1867, enactment of the British North America Act, 1867 (today called the Constitution Act, 1867, in Canada), which united three colonies into a single country called Canada within the British Empire. The British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada were united into a federation of four provinces (the Province of Canada being divided, in the process, into Ontario and Quebec). Canada became a kingdom in its own right on that date, but the British Parliament kept limited rights of political control over the new country that were shed by stages over the years until the last vestiges were surrendered in 1982 when the Constitution Act patriated the Canadian constitution. Originally called Dominion Day (Le Jour de la Confédération), the name was changed in 1982, the year the Canada Act was passed. Canada Day observances take place throughout Canada as well as by Canadians internationally. (Note: this info was copied from Wikipedia)

Nothing celebrates Canada like it's diverse musical heritage. And no other musician exemplifies the passion for all things Canada like the legendary and beloved folk/country musician "Stompin'" Tom Connors. Charles Thomas Connors was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, and had a trying childhood, being born to a teenaged mother in 1936, and moving around to various foster families. When he was 15 he left his adopted family and spent the next 13 years hitchhiking around Canada between part-time jobs and writing songs. At his last stop in Timmins, Ontario, which may also have been his big "break," he found himself a nickel short of a beer at the city's Maple Leaf Hotel. The bartender, Gaet Lepine, agreed to give Tom a beer if he would play a few songs. These few songs turned into a 13-month contract to play at the hotel, a weekly spot on the CKGB radio station in Timmins, eight 45-RPM recordings, and the end of the beginning for Tom Connors (sources: Wikipedia and Allmusic).

Since then Connors has composed more than 300 songs and has released four dozen albums, with total sales of nearly 4 million copies. He is also a staunch advocate for Canadian musicians' rights, especially against Canadian music awards that acknowledge Canadian musicians who do most of their business in the US. In 1996 he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, the second highest civilian award, which recognizes an outstanding level of talent and service, or an exceptional contribution to Canada and humanity, on behalf of the Queen of Canada (Elizabeth II). In 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Toronto, and was ranked thirteenth on CBC's "The Greatest Canadian" list, the highest ranking artist on that list. He has never toured outside of Canada, and has never had a hit record on the Canadian music charts.

"Canada Day, Up Canada Way" is from his 1994 album Fiddle and Song, which is out of print (at least in the US). It can also be found on his greatest hits album Souvenirs: 25 of the Best, which is also out of print in the US. On this Canada Day, sit back and have a Moosehead and a Tim Horton's donut, ponder NHL free agency (which started today), remember that curling season is only two months away (September!), and as you are listening to Neil Young, Rush, and Celine Dion, take a minute to acknowledge Stompin' Tom and the great musical legacy he has written for our fine neighbors to the north.

National Celebrations: National Holiday

Timbuk 3: National Anthem


So let's all sing the national anthem
Free the hostages, pay the ransom
Raise the flag, lower the taxes
Ban the bomb, bury the hatchet...

They stagger the fireworks around these rural parts; we've spent the last few nights hearing pops and crackles out the window late into the dark hours, and we'll hear more, for sure, up to the fourth. Alongside, the deeply American sounds of Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen and the rise-and-fall mutter and splash of above-ground pool parties and barbecues drift through the trees, as early weekend warriors anticipate the street fair and parade that will march down Main Street, each fire truck and family farm vehicle, each team and flotilla pausing for just a moment on the cusp like God's own invading army before descending into the madness for their due regard come Wednesday.

One thing you won't likely hear is the less than soothing sounds of Timbuk 3, that mid-eighties band of rabblerousers and politicos who tried to cast a critical lens on the popular only to find its subtext was too deep for the average listener. Though the typical case study is obvious - The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades may be catchy, but to use it for motivation is to totally mistake its pith for optimism - their oft-overlooked and certainly critically undersold back catalog is equally strong.

I've posted several of singer-songwriter Pat MacDonald's cynical compositions here over the last few years, aiming to make my case with persistence, if not comprehensive treatment. But in many ways, National Holiday, which opens 1989 album Edge of Allegiance, is the prototypical Timbuk 3 song: a solid electrobeat over lush acoustic guitars, sparse harmonica, and an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek synthesizer; a high level of lyrical genericism and broad-brush archetype; so dry, you're not totally sure if it's meant to be ironic right up until the final punchline. Described aptly as both "chipper" and "facetiously optimistic" by critics, it's like a family portrait of our nation: frozen in time, falsely crisp in demeanor; so carefully groomed and spun, the better to fool ourselves in the patriotic mirror.

National Celebrations: Saturday in the Park

Chicago: Saturday in the Park

This week’s theme gives me a chance to write a little about my wife. She loves music and has a beautiful voice. When we first met, our shared love of music was one of the things that we bonded over. One of our earliest dates, in fact, was to see Bring on the Night, the documentary about the creation of Sting’s first solo album. Of course, no two people have exactly the same musical taste. Mine tend to skew harder and gruffer than hers, which are more folky and mellow. However, there is a significant enough overlap that we can coexist. (Aside—there is a station on Sirius XM called “The Bridge” which plays soft rock and which I call the Roach Motel of radio—once we start listening, I can’t get out, because my wife pretty much loves every song they play, leaving me with no chance to change stations and hear a different genre.)

When we had been dating for a little while, I was living in Manhattan working as a lawyer at a big Wall Street firm, and my (future) wife lived in Queens and had a job in Manhattan. She often stayed at my apartment, but only because it was convenient. Really. On Election Day, I worked and she didn’t, and when I came home, I discovered that she had moved in. One might think that this showed a certain level of commitment, and I guess it did. But we always said that we knew that we were bound to stay together when we integrated our record collections. Hundreds of vinyl albums, alphabetized together, would be very difficult, if not impossible, to separate, so we were stuck with each other.

She didn’t have any Sex Pistols, or Clash, or Genesis, and I didn’t have any James Taylor or Carly Simon, but there was overlap, and we both had pretty large Chicago collections.

Chicago was one of my first favorite bands. I saw my first concert when I convinced my parents to take me to see them at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where I also smelled marijuana for the first time. (And where, a few weeks ago, I returned to see my son graduate from college. Cue “Twilight Zone” music.) I still love early Chicago, when they played complex music, often with social or political messages, and even when they played love songs. In general, I think that a horn section makes any song better. Of course, in the late-1970’s (after original guitarist Terry Kath died), their music became increasingly schlocky and generally awful and unlistenable, to the point where most “serious” music fans wouldn’t admit their early greatness.

“Saturday in the Park,” from Chicago V is one of their most well-known songs, and one of their best. Supposedly written by Robert Lamm after a July 4 walk through Central Park where he saw the varied musicians and entertainers that were performing, it is a snapshot of the holiday activities. Not everyone uses their national celebration to make obvious, patriotic statements. Lamm’s song about the way that people, in the middle of New York (during one of the city’s worst periods), could enjoy themselves, hear Italian songs, laugh, dance and eat ice cream, is maybe a more convincing statement about the greatness of America than something that shoves the sentiment down your throat.