Saturday, May 4, 2013

Work: Botany Bay

The Wolfe Tones: Botany Bay


Imagine yourself as a bricklayer in 19th Century Ireland, fed up with work and ready to take a trip aboard an emigrant ship to the shores of Botany Bay (Australia). The song refers to “navvies” (laborers, especially those who worked on construction or excavation projects) and “gangers” (foremen). I love this chorus, as it surely captures the sentiments of the day:

Farewell to your bricks and mortar, farewell to your dirty lies,
Farewell to your gangers and gang planks,
And to hell with your overtime,
For the good ship Ragamuffin, she's lying at the quay,
For to take oul Pat with a shovel on his back,
To the shores of Botany Bay.

The poor sod merely wants his wages, to tell his boss to take the job and shove it, and then to get outta Dodge … in this case, probably Queenstown (Cobh) in County Cork which was the emigrants' embarkation point. The song was first collected about 1957, and some additional verses were added shortly thereafter. Oul Pat shows plenty of optimism in the last verse where he plans to find gold in Australia … or simply to go back to an eight-hour shift at his bricklaying trade.

Irish pub songs have plenty of anti-work sentiment, and another that’s just as much fun is called “Muirsheen Durkin.” In this case, however, the fame and fortune to be found are in California during the Gold Rush. Mr. Carney’s wants nothing more with potatoes (praties), and he’s ready to sail across the foam bound for Amerikay.

Goodbye Muirsheen Durkin, sure I'm sick and tired of workin',
No more I'll dig the praties, and no longer I'll be fooled,
For as sure as me name is Carney, I'll be off to California,
Where instead of diggin' praties, I'll be diggin' lumps of gold.

Monday, April 29, 2013


The Battlefield Band: We work the black seam

Damn your eyes, Starmaker, I really, honestly, really wanted to move away from my folky niche, yet what could I do? Presented with this fortnights topic, within a whisper of the passing of  Margaret Thatcher, always enshrined, in the hearts of the left-leaning limey, with the abolishment of work, or at least certain parts thereof, it was always going to be this, or one of umpteen covers of Dylans prescient ode to "her" farm. And somehow Sting, the author of this song, when his credibility remained untainted by tantricity and dodgy rain forest deals, would now seem sorrily too irredeemably naff for this poster.

So who the hell are the Battlefield Band?  I recently read a suggestion that the Battlefield Band could fulfil a similar role for scottish music as pehaps the Chieftains may have for irish. Lofty praise indeed, maybe true, but somehow missing the angle of trajectory. Always implicitly political, over a 3 decade time period, with an ever changing cast,the Battlefield Band have always encapsulated the true curse of  Scotland, to have the majesty of emotion, the moral high ground of a history, yet to be forever in thrall to the nation to whom they lent their king, some 400 or so years ago. I don't wish to invoke arguments around nationalism, but, actually no, I don't and won't.  Others can say it far better than I.

So what do I love about the band? I think it is the mix of the old with the new: ancient airs mingling with modern songs like this. The musical mix, bagpipes, guitars and fiddle shrouded within swathed washes of synthesiser. And the cast of musicians, every time an essential member seeming to depart, a replacement arriving hot foot from ever more distant corners of celtic wizardry. A bagpiping prodigy from the USA? Tick. An apparent endless supply of hebridean fiddle wunderkinds? Tick. A college of emeritus alumni remaining fresh in the memory and high in profile, from Brian McNeill to the current golden boy of scottish arrangements, John McCusker, fiddler to Mark Knopfler amongst many others. Tick. And a word for Alan Reid, a constant for near always, songwriter, singer and keyboard king, without whom it would seem inconceivable. But still they go forward, as their byline states, forward with Scotlands past.

Mayday is the workers holiday they say, yet it seems locked in a past, recent yet gone forever, maybe as distant as the maypole around which we used to dance? Work, huh, what is it good for?

Work: Minimum Wage

The BusBoys: Minimum Wage

It seems that most songs about work portray it as something bad, something demeaning, or simply an impediment to the good parts of life. The question, “do you live to work or work to live,” is one that many of us have had to address in our lives. But, of course, most of us need to work in order to survive, and the scary thing is how many Americans work for minimum wage, which, I understand, does not even allow the worker to live above the poverty line. This, despite the fact that our culture is, to a great degree, based on the theory that hard work will lead to success and that that there is dignity in work. These statements are all too often made by people who don’t know what they are talking about.

This is, however, a music blog, not a politics blog, so I’ll move on to talk about something less weighty—racial stereotyping. Arguably, rock music was created by black musicians. Certainly, much of the early “rock ‘n’ roll” music was recorded by African-Americans such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Ike Turner, who recorded “Rocket 88,” which many consider the first rock song. In those early days, white “rock” was often covers of music previously recorded by blacks, or somewhat watered down imitations of their style. Through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, the umbrella of rock music was broad enough to include diverse sounds including Motown and other similar music, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire. For example, a random show at the Fillmore in 1967 featured headliner Bo Diddley supported by Big Brother and the Holding Company, a white blues-rock band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, a white rock band, Big Joe Williams, a black bluesman and another band, Headlights, who seem to have left no trace on the Internet. But, by the late 1970s, it seemed like the fractionalization of rock music into increasingly narrower slices for marketing purposes had resulted in a split between white music and black music.

Enter The BusBoys, who released their debut album in 1980. The band was made up of five African-Americans and one Hispanic (another group that was long marginalized in rock between the heyday of Santana and the rise of Los Lobos), who made rock music, but incorporated soul and funk influences. This made the band a bit unusual and got them some publicity, but their debut, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll was good enough to live up to the hype. In other words, they were more than a novelty act. The songs on their first album, and its followup, American Worker, addressed issues of race and economic inequality, but it had a beat and you could dance to it. Or pogo to it.

In Ronald Reagan’s America, when society seemed to be turning from civil rights movements and wars on hunger and poverty to a glorification of greed and individual success, it took some guts to include sarcastic songs such as “KKK” and “There Goes the Neighborhood,” and our featured song, “Minimum Wage,” which discusses the plight of people who “work so hard . . . work all day. . . . because we need to stay.”

In 1982, the band reached its highest level of popularity because they were championed by Eddie Murphy, who, at the time, was making blockbuster movies, and not the dreck that he has been mostly turning out recently. The band appeared in his hit 48 Hrs. and had songs on the soundtrack. They also served as Murphy’s opening act on his tours. After having a song in the Ghostbusters soundtrack and a third album, featuring Murphy on background vocals and in a video, the band toured, but never really seemed relevant, and they disappeared until the release of a reunion album a few years ago.

I remember playing this album on the radio, and enjoying it at the time. Revisiting it now after 30 plus years, it sounds OK. It’s not a great album—they were a talented bar band with a gimmick that made solid if unspectacular music. But I give them credit for raising important issues, even if people really weren’t listening. A few years after Minimum Wage Rock & Roll was released, another band, Living Colour, created a similar buzz by playing rock music while black, and again coupled their music with a message.

In the current environment where iPods and streaming services allow everyone to be their own DJ, and where Sirius/XM seems to have a channel for every tiny subgenre, it may no longer matter whether there is a split between black and white music, because you can pretty much find whatever you want, but it seems clear that when artists try to cross or muddle the divide, like The BusBoys, or The Beastie Boys, or Bad Brains, or TV on the Radio, race is still part of the discussion.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Work: We Can Work It Out

Stevie Wonder: We Can Work It Out
[Purchase link]

This selection is a little off the original train of thought for our new theme: work. Still, my choice complies with the theme in that it includes the word <work> in the title.

Whereas I had initially thought this week’s theme would provoke musical ideas about employment, I found myself thinking repeatedly about the Beatles' "We can Work It Out".

By 1965, when Rubber Soul came out, the Beatles:
  • Were an established hit band
  • Had been to the US on tour
  • Appear to have been inclined to alternative sounds (their India contacts start at about this time and I think you can sense it in Rubber Soul)
Two years ago, I was lucky to catch the initial round of “The Beatles Complete on Ukulele”, when Roger Greenawalt and crew were giving away their collection for free (it is still a free listen but no longer a free download). The Beatles' Rubber Soul album is one of my all-time favorite albums. It's an album that contains several personal preferences and seems to me to mark a turning point in pop music (what else was “hot” in ’65?)

There are YouTube versions of the original masters doing their thing: Lennon tickling a (more orless) pre-electric organ in one. But the version that I chose here carries so much more value to me. Without making my voting preferences too blatantly obvious (among the available options, of course), there are several things that caught my attention here:

Mr Obama (and even more so Mrs O) are clearly groovin' on the sounds (with Paul sitting right next to POTUS). More importantly, there is the underlying message that fits with Obama’s message of Hope : We can "work it out.” Throughout this version, I get the feeling that the timing isn’t quite right – but it works out all the same.