Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Conversations: Fish Song

Country Joe and the Fish: The "Fish" Cheer @ YouTube

I may be pushing the limits that define “conversation”, but here goes: Many is the live song that includes some form of dialog(ue) between the artist and the audience. In that a “conversation” is defined as a spoken exchange of thoughts and opinions, this leaves our weekly topic open to various interpretations.

I first thought of the Ry Cooder-type of dialogue. Ry manages to embed dialog in many songs; for example, wherein he and his vocalist exchange opinions. Cf: Down In Hollywood, where the dialog includes:
“"Hey, bud. Come here, let me talk to you for a second …”
Or in the back and forth in “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile”:
“I’ll tell you why.”

“Please tell me why.”

But then my thoughts went back to my original idea: the on-stage dialog between artist and audience. And while there are certainly numerous prior pivotal/historical instances, it occurred to me that one in particular needed our “refreshment” this week. So … back to our hippie days, the Cold War (want some serious perspective?), and the era of protest movements.

In this clip, live at Woodstock back in  ’69, Country Joe McDonald is at his peak. As many as half a million in the audience join him in voicing/responding, and thus conversing: their opinions about the Vietnam War. Gimme an “F”.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conversations: Fishing

Richard Shindell: Fishing

There’s something about Richard Shindell’s voice that just grabs me. I’m not sure where or when I first heard him, but WFUV is probably a pretty good bet. And it isn’t only the voice, it is the quality of the songwriting—deeply personal and complex songs, often written from unusual perspectives, like truck drivers, or kids who ran away to fight in the Civil War.

It turns out that Shindell and my good friend David went to college together. I don’t remember whether they knew each other personally, but I know that David was a big fan. A few years ago, when my friend turned 40, his wife Melissa decided to surprise him with a private concert by Shindell at a bar in New York. But because of his touring schedule, he wasn’t available near David’s birthday, so she tentatively booked the party for January 28, 2001. Melissa asked me whether it would be a problem, because it was Super Bowl Sunday. When she called, my team, the Giants, were fading, and Jim Fassel had made what we all thought was a ridiculous “guarantee” that they would make the playoffs. I told Melissa not to worry, and plan the party.

Of course, the Giants caught fire, and not only made the playoffs, but the Super Bowl. So, I was looking forward to seeing Richard Shindell up close and personal, but kind of annoyed that I was going to miss the Giants in the Super Bowl. The bar, though, had TVs, and the game was showing before the music started. Unfortunately for me, and my fellow Giants fans, the Ravens blew us out, and I was ultimately very glad not to have to watch the game and instead see a great show from Shindell, who was friendly, and, not surprisingly, wonderful.

None of which has anything to do with today’s theme, but I like the story. And I really like this song. There are some songs that are like perfect short stories in miniature. The songwriter quickly outlines the characters, the plot and the resolution, all in a few minutes. Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is an example. Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” is another. And “Fishing” is in this class.

It starts out as a very one-sided conversation, between an immigration agent and a Latino immigrant. The agent is trying to get the immigrant to turn on others—maybe the people who brought him to the country, or other undocumented immigrants. The agent uses the fact that his prisoner is a fisherman to try to forge common ground by sharing (symbolically loaded) fishing stories, while, at the same time trying to get him to “bite” on the bait that the agent has cast—the ability to stay in the country and protection for his “next of kin”—in exchange for cooperation.

Finally, the agent says, ostensibly talking about fishing, but really not:

Anyway, it's easy to bite.
You just take the bait
Can't snap the line
Don’t fight the hook
Hurts less if you don't try to dive.

In the last stanza, the fisherman finally responds, deciding to take his punishment rather than be a rat:

Señor, as you know I was a fisherman
And how full the nets came in
We hauled them up by hand
But when we fled, I left them just out past the coral reefs
They're waiting there for me
Running deep

The fisherman’s nobility contrasts with the agent’s manipulativeness, and leaves little doubt where Shindell’s sympathies lie. This song gives me chills every time I hear it. Joan Baez does a good cover, too, on her Gone From Danger album.

Conversations: Conversation with a Ghost

Ellis Paul : Conversation with a Ghost

Ellis Paul : Conversation with a Ghost


With Halloween approaching, I’ll offer Ellis Paul’s haunting “Conversation with a Ghost.” In the linked video, he provides an interesting narrative about the song and the ghost named Margaret “Pug” Putnam, a nurse during the Civil War. When jilted, perhaps a Ouija board (and a few letters from Margaret) are the only way to get answers. Or perhaps the song is an emotional tribute to a departed love who has fought a losing battle with illness or disease. The second video (with Susan Werner also on piano) makes the conversation all the more poignant, especially when she asks “Hey, are all those things you told me once still true?”

Ellis Paul’s 2006 double album “Essentials” (released on the reputable Rounder Records label) provides a great historical overview of Ellis Paul' songwriting for the past twenty years. He has many many kinds of songs over the years - folk, love, pop, story, rock, and even novelty songs. The two and one-half hours of music on “Essentials” deserves close listening and analysis of melodies, lyrics, messages, and arrangements. He's worked with seven producers over the years and many more musicians.

Paul attributes "Conversation With A Ghost" (released in 1992) as the first song that brought people out to the clubs of Boston to hear him play. Folksinger Bill Morrissey was producing his music back then. More recently, in 2012, Paul has released a brand new family album entitled “The Hero in You,” with original songs about the great impact that several free thinkers, risk takers and innovators have had on American culture and history.

From the stock of Maine potato farmers, Ellis Paul moved to Boston, studied music, connected with the roots of the folk genre, then proceeded to develop a signature singer/songwriter sound that now incorporates pop, rock and contemporary sensibilities. Ellis Paul's wise perceptiveness and charisma have built him a strong fan base. He's also a hardworking, resilient touring artist who has garnered numerous awards for about a dozen album releases and music, some of which has been featured in film soundtracks.

Ellis Paul's voice has character, and his songs understand the bond between land, life, heart and soul as he creates feelings of intimacy and familiarity. The masterful singer/songwriter’s messages are profound, and they make us think. As with “Conversation with a Ghost,” Ellis Paul's imagination and skill are both polished and fanciful all in one.

Conversations: Conversation


In this season of speeches and debates, I find myself thinking about verbal communication. Words can clarify or obscure, with or without intent. I am fond of saying that the internet has no tone of voice, but that doesn’t mean that hearing a voice with the words clarifies everything. There are times when a person hears words and meaning they have waited for for a long time, but also other times when the right words will not come. For songwriters, who after all live by finding the right words, all of these possibilities are potential subjects for their art. This week, then, we will be looking at songs that explore words said and unsaid.

Joni Mitchell’s song Conversation is an obvious starting point. Her narrator could be said to be having an affair. However, all they do is talk. The narrator is a sounding board for a man in an unhappy relationship. Mitchell creates a contrast between how easily the conversation flows between them and how broken the lines of communication are between this man and “his lady”. Even so, there are words that cannot be spoken in this situation. Conversation appeared on Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. Three years earlier, Mitchell sang the song at a club called the 2nd Fret with a different set of words at the end of the song:

He's acted down all evening
Maybe it's over now
Maybe she's finally leaving
I'd like to show her now.

But friends are friends forever
So hard to change their role
Laugh with him, cry together
A friend feels so old.

Hey friend, it feels so whole
But you keep your feelings deep inside
You talk of them and think of pride
Now is the wrong time
But maybe if a dozen days are warm and right
You'll hear him say "I've wanted you baby for such a long time."

He comes for conversation
I comfort him sometimes
Comfort and consultation
He knows that's what he'll find.

Especially for Joni Mitchell at that time, this would have given the song an impossible fairy tale ending. But the final version of the song still contains these words as an implied wish. Mitchell never sings them, but her voice tells you that her narrator would like them to come true. In a haven where words flow freely, there are still things which must remain unsaid.

By the way, I would gladly have posted this song as an mp3 if I had hosting. Barring that, I would have liked to post an “official“ video, or at least a concert performance. Alas, I could find any such thing. The song is still important enough to me that I wanted to share it somehow, and I was happy to at least find a video that was artfully made. I hope nobody minds.