Friday, January 14, 2022

Done: You Haven’t Done Nothin’

Stevie Wonder: You Haven’t Done Nothin’ [purchase

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this theme—“Done” would have made sense to me at the end of 2021, although the year-end here at SMM is filled with traditional themes, like our post-Thanksgiving “Leftovers,” some holiday-related theme(s) around Christmas, and the post-Christmas “In Memoriam.” So, if we had kicked off 2022 with “Beginning,” which we did in 2016, or “Fresh Starts” (2012), I’d get it. But maybe I protest too much, since our first theme of 2021 was “Over,” but I think that tied into the end of the Trump Error, and not the end of the also crappy 2020. 

Anyway, even though, so far, there’s no evidence that 2022 is going to improve on 2021 in any way, my choice of song for this theme is unrelated to the definition of “Done” as an adjective meaning “over,” but rather in its role as the past participle of the verb “do.” (Yes, we here at SMM are grammar nerds). And after the somewhat disappointing view totals of my In Memoriam piece about Larry Harlow, not exactly a household name outside of the Harlow household (and, of course, the salsa world, which doesn’t appear to overlap too much with our readership), I’m going to write about a big hit for a massively famous musician, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” which was a No. 1 pop and soul hit for Wonder.

I’ve probably mentioned more than a few times here (and maybe at some of my other blogging homes) that one of the joys of writing these pieces is that I often learn things about the song or artist that I didn’t know, and that’s what happened here. “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” was released as a single in 1974, and I probably heard hundreds of times over the years. But what I did not know, until I began researching this piece, was that it was directed at Richard Nixon, who resigned two weeks after the album it was on, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, was released, and one day after the single was released. Thanks for making that happen, Stevie. (I still remember the joy that my 13-year-old self felt when I heard, while working as a junior day camp counselor, that Nixon had decided to step down, which is maybe why this is my second Watergate related post in recent weeks.) 

I also didn’t know that the background vocals on the song were sung by the Jackson 5—despite the fact that Wonder literally sings “Jackson 5 join along with me” during the song. Or that all of the instruments on the song (other than bass) were played by Wonder, including the horn parts on synthesizer. 

Wonder is, of course, amazing, which was brought home to me this summer when, during that brief period when we thought COVID was on the ropes, my wife and I went to an actual movie theater to see the brilliant documentary, Summer of Soul, about the mostly forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival that took place in 1969, featuring an incredible roster of talent. Questlove, the director, made the decision to open the film with 19-year-old Stevie Wonder playing an amazing drum solo (!). You can see a bit of it (and hear a little more of it) in this trailer for the film (it’s on Hulu, and you really should just see the whole film because it is mind-blowing)

I also found this interesting essay from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that discusses Wonder’s performance, including speculation as to why Wonder chose to include the drum solo in a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” which was considered to be a “kiss-off” to Motown Records, Wonder’s label, and it’s a worthwhile read.

Thursday, January 13, 2022


 I think it probably the garbled syntax that attracted me first to this song, having always a love for the vagaries of language and how it can devolve. (Yes, devolve.) Especially in the southern states of the US, where there seems often gratuitous joy in treading roughshod over any concept of grammatical fluency. But it seems I am wrong to poke fun or criticise, as the good folk of Yale have looked into all of this, and more, in some depth. I give you the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, which addresses the use of english in north America. Done gone is what is called a "perfective done". Good, innit!? And I refer and recommend you to the whole of the rabbit warren that clicking on that site can open up, but not right now, we have a song to discuss.........

You may know this song from other versions, which may be touched on, but it is hauntingly and stunningly gaunt in this presentation, a lone voice of lamentation that burns through any need for accompaniment. The singer is one Vera Hall, she acknowledged as, if not the author, certainly the owner, via possession being  9/10 of the law. For, when John Avery Lomax, the ethnomusicologist began collating the songs of America in the 1930s, it was Hall he wooed more asiduously than many, recording as many songs as she could sing for him. This is the one that stuck the hardest, with it being recorded for the Library of Congress in posterity. Lomax's son, the slightly better known Alan, who continued in the same stock of trade, later presented her in concert at Columbia University's American music Festival of 1948. 

But what of those other versions? Perhaps the most well known is that by Johnny Cash. In a spare call and response with Anita Carter, his sister in law, it remains a striking call to arms, solitary vocal tracks drenched in echo. So what or why was the subject done gone? It seems the song refers to the death of a man, a black man, on a chain gang, the unsaid implication that his presence in said chains was down to some trivial misdemeanour, such as within the context of such times. (Such times? This article opens a not so distant eye to the practice I had thought long since, along with Paul Muni, been confined to history.) Still, my new year resolution is be to avoid outraging myself as much I can, so, rather than progressing this as any diatribe, have another, final version, this time with backing.

In 1974 Jorma Kaukonen was probably still better known as the shit hot electric guitarist in Jefferson Airplane, although he had dropped stellar hints around his fabulous acoustic technique as well, courtesy the Hot Tuna side project he and JA bassman Jack Casady set up five years earlier, and which still survives, if only from time to time. Quah was a solo album he dropped that year, nominally in cahoots with his friend, Tom Hobson on additional guitar and occasional vocals. 45 years on it is a record to which I frequently turn, the pervasive mood of melancholy something I find uplifting. His picking and the spectral hollowness of his voice is just perfect for this song.

And that's all I done got to say.

Done Vera, Done Johnny and Done Jorma (a later live version).