Wednesday, January 29, 2014

TMFW 21 - Pete Seeger Stands Up To Congress

On Monday, famed folksinger Pete Seeger died at age 94, and the news is awash with stories of his influence on the civil rights (he was on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and popularized "We Shall Overcome" as a rallying song), worker's rights ("Solidarity Forever" or "If I Had a Hammer" are good tastes of that), and migrant worker (his first concert was a farmworker benefit) causes.  Among the various stories from Seeger's life, one that has been frequently reported is Seeger's defiance with Congress in 1955.  
Seeger was, obviously, quite open with his work for lefty causes.  (In fact, he has come under some justified criticism for expressing sympathies for Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro - both of which he publically regretted later in life.)  As a result of his work, he was called before Congress to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955.  Seeger didn't appreciate the prevailing attitude in Congress that advocacy for certain causes made him somehow un-American, and he took the opportunity to convey that to the Committee.  Rather than invoking the Fifth Amendment, Seeger objected generally to the right of Congress to ask questions and took offense to the notion that his beliefs or values were not properly held.  In his testimony before Congress, Seeger was defiant and blunt.  Some highlights:
*  "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs.  I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."  
*  "I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours...that I am any less of an American than anybody else.  I love my country very deeply, sir."  
*  "I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known.  I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American." 
For his obstinance, Seeger was tried and convicted by a jury for "contempt of Congress," and he was sentenced to jail.  (On appeal, the sentence was overturned.)  He was blacklisted for years after that, and did not appear on network television until the late 1960s.
Seeger later received, from President Clinton, the National Medal of Arts.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
BONUS FACT:  In 2006, Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.  The record was recorded at Springsteen's farm in New Jersey.  It's full of classic songs that Seeger made famous, and is bursting with energy and joy.  Try "Old Dan Tucker" or "John Henry."  Actually, try the whole thing.  It's great. 
BONUS FACT 2:  A version of "Little Boxes," which was made famous by Seeger, is the intro music to the Showtime show Weeds for seasons 1-3 and season 8.  Actually versions of the song are the intro music: the show used more than 35 different covers of the song, from artists including Elvis Costello, Death Cab for Cutie, The Mountain Goats, Ben Folds, and Aimee Mann.  Here's a 40+ minute (!!) video that includes (almost) all of them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TMFW 20 - Blues Traveler Taunts Listeners With Their Catchy "Hook"

When my daughter started learning Pachelbel's "Canon in D" on piano, I played her this popular comedy bit (11MM views!) that calls out just how many modern songs share its initial chord structure.  The bit includes the Blues Traveler song "Hook," which reminded me of a fun "true music fact" about that song that is hiding in plain sight
Blues Traveler existed mostly as a jam band before and after its two big hits of "Run-Around" and "Hook."  Their success is a product of great timing, as they rose to fame right during the early-'90s "jam band revival."  In fact, the band was instrumental (no pun intended) in that revival, as they created the H.O.R.D.E. festival (brining along their friends Widespread Panic and Phish in the first year) as a way to play larger venues during the summer tour months.
As you might expect of a jam band that prominently features long harmonica solos and a singer that is at times unintelligible, Blues Traveler was skeptical and even outright dismissive of the modern pop scene.  As a critique of that scene, they wrote the song "Hook," which as noted above features the exact chord sequence of "Canon in D." 
But the lyrics are what really set the song apart.  They are sung with a very soothing and catchy melody, and flow easily in one ear and out the other.  When you stop to listen to them, though, they are effectively a taunt.  The lead singer John Popper starts the song by noting "It doesn't matter what I say / as long as I sing with inflection / that makes you feel that I convey / some inner truth of vast reflection / but I've said nothing so far / and I can keep it up as long as it takes / and it don't matter who you are / if I'm doing my job, it's your resolve that breaks."  The chorus follows, which notes simply that "the hook brings you back / I ain't telling you no lie / the hook brings you back / on that you can rely." 
The remaining verses, and even the little "rap" at the bridge (hands up if you ever drunkenly tried to bust that out when it played at a party), continue the message.  Popper notes that he is "being insincere," he offers his wish that he could sing of more genuine things but guesses that it would be "financial suicide," and he boasts that when he's "feeling stuck and need[s] a buck, [he] don't rely on luck" but instead on the formulaic "hook." 
Ironically, the song proves the band's point quite well.  "Hook" was a top-10 hit on the Mainstream chart, while the album four went 6x platinum.  And I must admit that, although I have heard the song many many many times, I never thought about the lyrics or noticed the subterfuge until last year (nearly 20 years after its release).   Much respect to Mr. Popper.
BONUS FACT:  On the subject of "have you ever REALLY listened to that lyric," a favorite of mine is Janet Jackson's "Nasty."  Starting at 2:12 of the video, she demands some respect and explains how to address her, saying "'Privacy' is my middle name / my last name is 'Control.'  No, my first name ain't 'Baby.' It's 'Janet;' 'Miss Jackson' if you're nasty." 
So for those non-nasty people, you may refer to her as "Janet Privacy Control."  If you ARE nasty?  Please use the more formal "Miss Jackson Privacy Control."

TMFW 19 - Deep in the Heart of [CENSORED]

"Deep in the Heart of Texas" feels like a cowboy song that was sung back in the days of Jim Bowie and Sam Houston and those guys.  But it was actually written and recorded in 1941, when sings like that passed for mainstream music.  Perry Como, Gene Autry, and Bing Crosby each had a version with the first two years of the song's writing, and each saw good success with it.  Como's version was #1 on "Your Hit Parade" for several weeks, and Crosby's made #3 on the Billboard charts.
The song was even famous internationally, where it was picked up by the BBC and placed in regular rotation.  The famous handclaps throughout the song were popular with listeners, who would clap along for fun.  Those claps ultimately spelled doom for the song in England.
With the war effort in full swing, officials worried that if the song were heard by factory workers - apparently music was played to maintain morale - they might neglect their tools during the handclap parts of the song, losing productivity or making a critical mistake. So, in what must be the tamest censorship ever, the BBC banned the song during working hours.  
(H/T Dan Lewis and his terrific book "Now I Know" for today's idea)
Bonus Fact:  For readers of a certain generation, "Deep in the Heart of Texas" is inextricably linked with the great movie Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.  To prove to his friend Dottie that he is actually in Texas while on a phone call, Pee-Wee hollers out the first line of the song.  Right on cue, everyone around claps and sings the tag.  I've always imagined that this is what Texas is really like

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TMFW 18 - The Winstons Make Music History (on the B-Side, Many Years Later)

Richard Lewis Spencer grew up in the 1940s and 50s in a poor part of Anson County, North Carolina.  As he tells the story in a delightfully lo-fi interview, he learned to play piano and clarinet at a young age - for the latter, taking an old instrument that a school in a more affluent part of town discarded - and music became a central part of his life.  In college, he took up the saxophone, and started to play in makeshift backup bands for black artists that were touring the South, including Otis Redding.  (R&B artists in those days typically couldn't afford to employ and travel with a full-time band, so they put them together along the way.)  Building on that experience, Spencer put together a band that got a standing gig at a club in Washington, DC and later opened regularly for the Impressions.
When Spencer was the leader of the band The Winstons, he sat down and wrote a letter to his father, who had been in and (mostly) out of his life since childhood.  The letter inspired him to write a more optimistic song called Color Him Father, which was a bit of semi-autobiographical wish fulfillment about a stepdad who came to love and serve his stepfamily as his own children.  (A bummer real-life twist is that Spencer's dad actually just hopped a Greyhound, rather than getting "killed in the war.") The song is sufficiently sappy that you risk cavities just listening, but it amazingly hit #2 on the R&B charts and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.  In fact, the song earned The Winstons a Best R&B Song Grammy in 1970.
By the time of their Grammy win, The Winstons had already broken up.  Spencer returned to the east coast where he enrolled in college, got a bachelor's and then master's degree, then worked and retired from the Washington Metro system.  The onetime chart almost-topper and Grammy winner is now a high school teacher and Baptist minister, while a version of the Winstons still plays gigs where they can find them.
That's a pretty good story, right?  A TMFW in its own right, even.  But while "Color Him Father" made The Winstons marginally famous, the B-side to that record made them immortal.  
The B-side to "Color Him Father" was a soul/gospel instrumental cover of the "Amen" chorus.  The original version was written for the Sidney Poitier movie Lilies of the Field (the film won Poitier a Best Actor Oscar - the first for a black performer in a competitive category).  The song was popularized by the Impressions in 1964, and is now sufficiently mainstream that my Catholic grammar school used to sometimes sing it during our weekly mass.  Perhaps inspired by their earlier time spent opening for The Impressions, The Winstons chose the song to cover for their B-side.  
The Winstons' version of the song - which they named "Amen, Brother" - is a nice, fairly straightforward performance.  The melody is played on brass, and there are a few instrumental flourishes thrown in throughout.  Then, at 1:29 in the song, there's a six-second drum break played by The Winstons' drummer Gregory Cylvester "G.C." Coleman, All in all, it's a serviceable cover and not much more.  At the time of its release, it did not chart and was by all accounts nothing other than the back of a popular single.

But in the late '70s and early '80s, the rise of rap and hip-hop music saw artists looking for drum beats that they could sample and remix for their songs.  Short drum breaks became popular because the beat is "clean" - i.e. already isolated from the other instruments. These so-called "breakbeats" were collected by early hip-hop pioneers, and with the advent of digital sampling, artists were able to separately track each individual beat so that the breaks became infinitely remixable. 
As you might have figured out by now, the drum break from "Amen, Brother" was picked up and used as a breakbeat.  Like, used and used and used and used, to the point that the "Amen Break" became the most famous beat in history. The Winstons' six-second break has now been sampled in hundreds and hundreds of songs - maybe over 1000 of them (!!!) - including those by Jay-Z, Salt-N-Pepa, N.W.A., Snow, David Bowie, Oasis, and Nine Inch Nails.  And it has appeared in dozens of advertisements. As told in this story from The Economist, the break has even spawned entire subgenres of music like drum and bass and jungle.
For their part, neither G.C. Coleman nor Richard Spencer ever saw a dime from the prolific second life their song has enjoyed.  If you are interested in more about the Amen Break, and on a meditation on its meaning for copyright, derivative art, and the commercialization of music, this extremely-dry-but-very-thoughtful 18-minute YouTube exposition (with over 4 million views!) is for you.   
Bonus fact:  Linda Martell, a black country singer from South Carolina, did a country cover of "Color Him Father", which hit #7 on the country charts.  The song earned her an invitation to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1969 she became the first black woman ever to perform there. She sang on that stage 11 more times before ending her singing career in 1974. (For good measure, here's Martell busting out some good old fashioned country on Hee Haw, here's an appreciation of her by Alice Randall in The Oxford American, and here are links to her record Color Me Country at Rdio and Spotify.  I have been listening to the record since I discovered it last month and it really is great).

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

TMFW 17 - Auld Lang Syne, Explained

Pardon the timing of today's true music fact, but it's been a slow start here to 2014.  For that reason, today's fact is a very short one. 
The great e-mail newsletter Today I Found Out had a nice writeup this week on why we sing "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve.  Spoiler: it's because of the great bandleader Guy Lombardo, who first played it on a radio broadcast in 1929, and played it every single year thereafter, on radio and later on TV broadcasts, until 1976 (he died in November 1977).

Bonus fact: As the link explains, "auld lang syne" means literally "old long since," and roughly means "days gone by" (or the more modern idiom "the good old days.")

Bonus fact 2:  Here's a very pretty version of "Auld Lang Syne."  But there's a number of great New Year's songs out there, if you want to hear something else.  Try "Happy New Year" from Abba, the Stax Records release "New Year's Resolution" from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, or two from Harry Connick, Jr.: "What are you Doing New Year's Eve?" or "Nothin' New for New Year."  Or, if you are feeling a bit more battered about by life these days, try "This Year" from TMFW-favorite The Mountain Goats.