Thursday, July 2, 2020

Looking Forward: I'll Follow the Sun

purchase [ I'll Follow the Sun]

Looking back or looking forward. There's something about the human condition that goes like : "the grass is always greener on the other side". My co-horts here have referenced both directions: looking  forward to  a time of live music, looking back to a time before for the guidance and wisdom of those who came before us.

There's a rather extensive "play-by-play" of the history of <I'll Follow the Sun> at and more at their sister site - both of them worth the few minutes you'd spend perusing them.

For  my second Beatles post in a month, it need be the theme that carries this: Forward, as in better days ahead (as in 'getting better all the time') or, possibly, moving on. Actually, the song's lyrics appear open to interpretation as to for whom the future looks better and who is moving on. Is it the singer leaving for better days or is it the girl who's going to know in the end that times were better with him. The lengthy beatlesebooks article makes the remark that you probably shouldn't dig too deep for meaning from a song that was, after all, written by a 16-year-old McCartney.

For the final 1964 recording, the original lyrics  ‘Well, don’t leave me alone, I need you now hurry and follow me my dear’ were replaced with 'and now the time has come ...'.  How does this color our interpretations of the lyric meanings? The words 'I need you' and 'follow me' only seem to muddy the overall message: who's looking forward to a better day for who? As for following the sun, it would seem pretty indisputable that (a) the sun is a symbol for the day ahead/future - especially if you set out to follow it -  and (b) sun is better than rain - something to look forward to (when the rain comes ...). Chalk the  mud up to the lyrics skills of a 16 year old?

Most Beatles songs at the time were pretty much R&B with little room for a more melodic, more romantic musical style. And that is certainly true of the original version of the song from 4 years before the version you probably know. The tempo of the 1960 recording is much more in keeping with the R&B persona they thought they needed to project to keep their fans. And my two sources note that even a year later, their next "melodic" piece, Yesterday, was initially released in the US before the UK - again aiming not to alienate the R&B-expectent fan base.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Looking Forward: Live Music

The Band: The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

The one thing that I’m most looking forward to when it becomes possible again, not surprisingly, is going to see live music. At the end of the year, when I do my family holiday letter, I’m always struck by the number of live shows that I’ve been too, but this year will be different. My last live show was Richard Thompson at Symphony Space in NY in early February, and since then I’ve seen a bunch of live streams, which have their benefits, but there’s nothing like live music.

When I thought about this theme, my first thought was “Let There Be Rock,” by the Drive-By Truckers. But I’ve written about them so much, I thought, enough already. (Although “What It Means,” from American Band really hits home right now, I’m just sayin’). So, I turned to the blogger’s best friend, Google, to find songs about live music, and one that popped up was The Band’s “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” from their Stage Fright album.

Now, to be clear, that song is about a minstrel or medicine show, and although these shows often included live music, I am emphatically not interested in seeing a minstrel show, but stay with me—it will make sense eventually. Minstrelsy was, remarkably, the most popular form of entertainment in the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s, until they were supplanted by vaudeville. Minstrel shows were, initially, white performers, in black face, portraying an exaggerated negative stereotype of blacks, and were undoubtedly racist. Later, black performers themselves pretended to be whites in blackface, but still pandered to the same racist stereotypes. To quote Rhiannon Giddens, “minstrelsy was terrible.” That quote is from one of the live streams I watched recently, sponsored by Carnegie Hall, featuring Giddens and her partner Francesco Turrisi, discussing minstrelsy, its roots, and more, including way too much information about the tambourine, and they performed a few great songs. Watch it here, for the historical background.

“The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” is based on Levon Helm’s memories of attending minstrel and medicine shows in his youth in Arkansas, and the name is derived from one of the shows, F. S. Wolcott's Original Rabbit's Foot Minstrels. As Giddens mentions in the video, the awful, racist minstrel shows co-opted black string band music (which is what Giddens’ band Carolina Chocolate Drops championed). In fact, the Wolcott troupe was originally Pat Chappelle's Rabbit's Foot Company, formed around the turn of the century. It was owned by a black man, and featured black performers. Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Company was remarkably successful, played all over the country, and even had its own baseball team. The show included, among others, Ma Rainey, often known as the Mother of the Blues. But, although I’m not 100% certain, I’m pretty sure that this black owned and operated show used blackface—because that was how to make money in those days. And when Chappelle died in 1911 (and I don’t see any connection between him and Dave Chappelle), he was considered one of the wealthiest black residents of Jacksonville, Florida.

Chappelle’s wife remarried and sold the business to a white man, F.S. Wolcott, who eventually renamed the troupe. It appears that the performers remained black, and included Bessie Smith, Louis Jordan and a young Rufus Thomas. Based on this “window card,” it seems pretty clear that the Wolcott show also performed in blackface:

The show was sold again in 1950 and continued to perform until 1959 when changing times and tastes led to the show’s equipment being seized for nonpayment of taxes.

So, why would The Band write a song about a minstrel show that advanced negative stereotypes of blacks? And which refers to a musical ensemble named the “Klondike Klu Klux Steamboat Band?” My guess is simply that they (and the song, as usual, is credited to Robbie Robertson, but who knows who really should have gotten credit?) wanted to write a slice of life story about a particular place and time without making a value judgment—much like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a sympathetic song written from the traitor side. You can read some analysis of both songs, and others by The Band, here.

We’re in a time where people are (again) focusing on symbols of racism in the United States, and I admit that I’m delving deeper into issue of race and racism. People are marching. Statues are coming down, and there's actual bipartisan discussion about taking traitors' names off of military bases. White voice actors are stepping away from portraying characters of color. Amusement park rides are being re-themed.  People are realizing that the confederate (no capital letter used on purpose) battle flag is a symbol of racism and treason, and even NASCAR and Mississippi have had to banish it. Numerous TV shows have removed episodes containing blackface, and allegations of wearing blackface have caused politicians and others to lose their jobs.

In times like this, mistakes are bound to be made (passive voice use intended), and unfortunately the opponents of change are seizing on the apparent mistakes (toppling a statue of Lincoln, for example) to discredit the movement. But the fact is that we are more openly debating these issues—and things are happening—which is a good thing. I’m sure that there are people who would argue that Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit Foot Company was a positive—a black owned, black run business that made its owner rich and exposed many people of all races to black music and culture. But despite the fact that some of the music was groundbreaking, and ultimately led to the type of music that I want to see live, that version of black culture was a distorted, negative one that helped to oppress black Americans.  It was a shame that someone like Chappelle needed to reinforce those stereotypes to succeed. Let’s hope that this moment of reconsideration has a lasting positive effect, and doesn’t fade away, like the last wave of statue toppling and flag lowering in 2015. Or like Reconstruction.

And you thought this would be about me wanting to go to a concert.

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Be careful what you wish for, isn't it? Looking forward is bedevilled with risk, the future never quite as cut and dried as the runes. If the past is another country, then the future should be another planet. (Why do my fingers always want to add 'or oblivion'?) This time last year I wonder how many of us were looking forward to what's happening now? But, sticking to the future forward interface, it is always to space our imaginations return, the final frontier even a bankrupting NASA can't take from our imaginations. For, if we are indeed living in interesting times, apropos the proverb/curse, surely we want even more interesting to look forward to. Or even, sometimes, less interesting.

Popular music is rammed with references to rocket filled skies, and there is often a coupling between the schlockier the band, the more garage-y the sounds, so higher still is the sky of their aspirations. I love a good old goofball thrash, always have, loving it all the more when spacesuits are donned over ripped jeans and leathers. Yes, I'm sorta thinking Ramones here, their lo-fi scuzz always a tonic. Now it may be that 3rd album, Rocket to Russia, was weapons grade over any galactic conquest, with Johnny no doubt a fan of nuking the commies, but I prefer to imagine the band sitting disconsolately awaiting blast off on a mission to Mars. (I guess Russia was the clue.....) Plus, they only ever did one overtly clairvoyant song, and that only looked forward a paltry four years. If indicative of many of our issues right about now.

Ramones: Planet Earth 1988

Not musically their finest moment, nor quite the mood I was aiming at, but, let's use that as a vantage point to vault over boring old guitars. Electronica, eh, all high-domed boffins with degrees in circuitry? Um, no, praise be, just as many grade school d.i.y. drop outs with drum machines and programmers as anywhere else. (Forgive my clumsy labelling here, no slights intended, of course I really know education and brains are no prerequisite to the making of music, nor even to each other, and brainlessness is no less common in mensa than densa.)

Apollo 440: Yo, Future

Apollo 440, above, provide a glorious old clatter, as punk a sound as anything on the early scene at CBGBs, let alone the UK year zero, the country from which they hail. One of the early adopters of this amalgam of dance music, rap and anything else lying around the streets, they started life a boggling 30 years ago. With some success, their sound was probably a template for the later hugeness of The Prodigy, who had started off as standard anarcho-squat crusty spiral tribers around the same sort of time, ahead of a cartoonish reinvention that tore the UK singles charts about. And a not so dissimilar sound. The song below less so, but showing their need also to boldly go.

Prodigy: Out of Space

But, returning to Apollo 440, whose pony had way more tricks than video-game garishness alone. Or film soundtracks, for that matter. Centred around brothers Howard and Trevor Gray, along with trusty cohort Noko, they have kept up a profile, whether producing their own music, re-mixing the music of others or just maintaining an episodic, if no less potent presence on the live and club circuit. With last studio output in 2012, I am sure I had recently spotted some live dates, since lost to coronavirus, and that I had been pencilling in. Anyhow, parallel to the clattering techno of Yo, Future, they could also produce much sleeker pieces, blending into styles reminiscent, by virtue of hindsight,  of both Air and Alabama 3.

Apollo 440: Electra Glide in Blue

So, looking forward, the future. Where is it and how much, like every show, festival and tour of 2020, is postponed to 2021? God, I'm looking forward to 2021. Or is the future still what it used to be?

Apollo 440: The Future's What It Used To Be