Tuesday, November 25, 2014

American Tune – The Cover Version #3

Some music for your Tuesday & your Thanksgiving week. It seems “seasonal” to me in many ways, & not just the obvious.

Paul Simon wrote “American Tune” for his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, his second solo release following the break-up of the Simon & Garfunkel act. In the context of the United States in early 1970s, with the Watergate scandal, the lingering effects of the long Viet Nam war, & ongoing civil unrest, the  song addressed a country that had neglected its better angels, as the Statue of Liberty is seen sailing away
in contrast to the approach of the Mayflower, with its underlying hint of Governor Winthrop’s “city on a hill”. The song has some nice harmonic wrinkles. Originally composed in C, the changes come quickly under the melody, with shifts from the major to the relative minor, & with some additional variations that take the song's structure beyond the basic I-IV-V format.

If we fast forward to the 2000s—& those of us who’ve been around to witness since the 1970s & before may feel that time span to have simultaneously gone by very quickly & also stretched back over a gulf—we find the song’s themes continue to be relevant. In today's video, recorded in 2008, John Boutté & Paul Sanchez give the song a reading that renders it both immediately relevant & timeless. This live recording is a nod to their wonderful album on Threadhead, Stew Called New Orleans, which is brought to a sublime close by an “American Tune.”

Fans of the Treme television series are familiar with John Boutté’s singing, & to my mind he is one of the most soulful & passionate singers around, as well as one who possesses formidable technical chops in terms of phrasing & range. There’s always an urgent immediacy about his singing, & he can transform songs drawn from a wide musical palette—from Big Joe Turner to Leonard Cohen, from Hoagy Carmichael & Gershwin to Stevie Wonder & Sam Cooke, & lots more. Sanchez is a frequent collaborator with Boutté & is himself an impressive singer & songwriter.


Image links to its source on www.johnboutte.com. Photo by Michael Crook

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Here’s That Rainy Day" – Jazz on Nylon #6

Music for a Friday—& a rainy Friday at that for those of us in Portland.

“Here’s that Rainy Day” was written in 1953 by the songwriting team of Jimmy Van Heusen & Johnny Burke; Van Heusen & Burke were of course prolific, & wrote many other standards in the “Great American Songbook,” including such notable songs as “Swinging on a Star”, “Moonlight Becomes You”, “It Could Happen to You”, & “Imagination”. Both Van Heusen & Burke collaborated with others, Van Heusen working with Sammy Cahn, with whom he composed “All the Way”, “Call Me Irresponsible”, “Come Fly with Me” & many others. Burke meanwhile also worked with (among others) Arthur Johnston, with whom he penned the standard “Pennies from Heaven”. “Here’s that Rainy Day” was written in F major, & was debuted by Dolores Gray in the Broadway musical, Carnival in Flanders.

Here’s a fine short analysis of “Here’s that Rainy Day” by Jeremy Wilson on jazzstandards.com:

John Barrett Jr. aptly described “Here’s That Rainy Day” as “a gentle yawn, the sun rising on a sad feeling.” It is a ballad about lost love, about love turning to a cold, rainy day. With a relaxed tempo and a feeling of melancholy, the lyrics and music support each other in creating the mood. That is not to say that it is a simple song. Alec Wilder, in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, comments that “Here’s That Rainy Day” is “a very difficult song” with a complex bass line. He characterizes it as “powerful,” “affecting,” and with “great weight and authority.” The song is an excellent example of the sophistication that became acceptable in popular songs in the 1940’s.

Jazz musicians appreciate the elegance of “Here’s That Rainy Day” with its surprising melodies and harmonies. The song’s flexibility has allowed it to be recorded hundreds of times as a ballad, a swing number, and even an up-tempo, bossa nova tune.

Eric Hill is today’s guitarist, & I wish I knew more about him. He does have a website, & we learn there that he retired after a long career as a professional classical guitarist & teacher. He also mentions that his retirement occurred after recovering from a serious illness, & goes on to say that in retirement he plans to work on improvisation using jazz standards. His YouTube channel has a handful of videos, each excellent—& each will probably appear in this series as it continues—but it’s worth noting that he hasn’t uploaded anything since 2008; not sure what that means, but it is certainly a loss, because Mr Hill is a formidable player.

Hope you enjoy this.

Image links to its source at .erichillguitardownloads.co.uk

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"bossa ballade "

bossa ballade

Triste é saber que ninguém pode viver de ilusão
Que nunca vai ser, nunca vai dar
O sonhador tem que acordar


green guitar: a foliage of notes spreading into twilight,
notes chocolate, blue smoke, yellow orchid, a
single mayfly, a heart in my hand transfixed with a
half note’s stem, calla lily in perpetual shade & the
sunset’s tendrils as she lets down her hair—your
name inscribed on the one planet visible to the east,
the airplane glides past never touching down as we speak,
waking from one dream to the next to the next

& so far so good—a mockingbird in the willow singing
ultra-violet: triste é viver na solidão—a water-
fall drifting through rocks hollow like cups that can’t
contain water long, which is the garden’s sad
melody amongst rhododendrons—the blue streetcar’s
sighs transformed to major 7 chords in the hills, these
sunflowers gone black against a pale sky as we speak,
waking from one dream to the next to the next

your beauty itself an airplane—perplexity in a
sky so clear, a quarter note’s fade, a willow’s
witness to this sunset—a word arriving from
silence becoming magnolias, a blue train lost in a
forest, a teakettle’s vapor, a crimson cloche—what
wonder: a common language—this evening star
so green, guitar so green, airplane gone as we speak,
waking from one dream to the next to the next

how can the mockingbird be lonely being many
o dreamer awaken like a guitar strummed at dusk
how that airplane soars close by the planet as we speak,
waking from one dream to the next to the next

A.K. Barkley
© 2014

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons
Juan Gris: "View Across the Bay" – 1921
Public domain

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Spanish Flang Dang"

Some music for your Monday, played by someone who will be familiar to at least some of you.

Yes, resurrecting something from deep in the recesses of this blog’s past, it’s yours truly playing guitar on video. A lot has changed since I used to do that.

This recording is Elizabeth Cotton’s version of “Spanish Flang Dang”, AKA “Spanish Fandango”. The original version was in 3/4 time (waltz time) like Cotton’s rendering, but the tune was often played in 4/4 time by any number of notable guitarists, including Mississippi John Hurt & Mance Lipscomb. The tune was originally copyrighted in 1869 by Henry Worrall, a British born guitar instructor who’d immigrated to the United States; on the same day, Worrall copyrighted the piece “Sebastapol”, a composition in the open D tuning, & that also became a staple among guitar players. Just as “Spanish Fandango” often became “Spanish Flang Dang”, “Sepastapol” became “Vestapol”.

In any case, open G tuning was, & still is, sometimes referred to as “Spanish” tuning in honor of this tune, just as open D tuning is sometimes called “Vestapol”. Open G tuning, for the non-guitar players out there, simply means that the guitar is tuned so that the unfretted strings produce a G major chord—as heard at the very beginning of the piece. A guitar’s standard tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E, while open G is D-G-D-G-B-D. As you can see, three strings remain the same, which is why this is often considered the “easiest” open tuning for a guitar player brought up on standard tuning to adopt. It also is very close to the standard tuning of a 5-string banjo (at least these days), which is g-D-G-B-D (the small case G indicates that the drone string is tuned high, an octave above the open G string). As a result, it is often possible to adopt banjo tunes to the guitar open G tuning & vice-versa. “Spanish Flang Dang” is one that works quite well that way, though of course you lose the bass notes.

Open G or Spanish tuning was quite common in Delta blues; it was used by such notable blues artists as Charlie Patton (“Pea Vine Blues”, “Bird’s Nest Bound”, “High Water Everywhere”); Willie Brown (“Future Blues”, one of the Ur-Delta songs that inspired lots of imitations, especially by Patton); Robert Johnson (“Cross Road Blues”, “Terraplane Blues”, “Walking Blues”); Son House (“My Black  Mama”, “Death Letter Blues”, “Jinx Blues”); Muddy Waters (“I Be Troubled”, etc. etc.) Of course sometimes these musicians would crank the tuning up to Ab, A or even Bb, but the intervals between the strings stayed the same.

Hope you enjoy my humble efforts.

Image links to its source.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Method Acting/Cortez the Killer" – The Cover Version(s) #2

Some music for your Thursday.

In my initial post about great cover versions of popular songs, I noted that often musicians who are themselves talented songwriters produce some of the best covers. Today’s selection certainly does nothing to disprove this, as the team of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings have produced some of the most compelling music in the “singer/songwriter” vein over the past 20 years. & indeed, if you look around on YouTube, you’ll notice that Welch & Rawlings also do a number of great covers. Interestingly, not all of those involve music in the “Americana” vein that this duo calls its musical home—they cover material from bands as diverse as the Jefferson Airplane & Radiohead, as well as songs closer to home like selections from Townes Van Zandt & Bob Dylan songbooks.

In a bit of a twist on the usual, Rawlings is the lead singer here, with Welch providing vocal harmony. Of course, Rawlings has his own act (which typically includes Welch), the Dave Rawlings Machine, & despite being known most for his beautiful guitar work, he’s also a singer who can employ great tone & feeling.

The medley Rawlings has put together here works nicely. Bright Eyes’ song “Method Acting” moves quite seamlessly into one of Neil Youg’s best songs, “Cortez the Killer.” Rawlings has said the combination came together simply by playing “Method Acting” on his own & stumbling across the musical connection. Others have pointed out how similar “Method Acting” is to the Neil Young song “Camera,” & suggested that Rawlings may also have noted this. However, I can find no indication beyond speculation that he actually made this connection. Lyrically as well as musically, the songs complement each other well, especially given the powerful moment in "Cortez the Killer" when the song turns abruptly from Young's mytho-historical reading of the Mexican conquest to a stanza that poignantly speaks of lost love. It really is a startling musical moment, & it takes someone with Young's songwriting skill to put it across. Rawlings & Welch underline this moment beautifully in their performance.

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings always bring so much immediacy to their music. As a duo, their sound is intimate—voices, acoustic guitars. This is a beautiful & moving performance.


Image links to its source. This is an image that Welch makes available as part of her press kit. The original photograph is by Mark Seliger.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Black in the Shadow Again"

Black in the Shadow Again

As far as we could tell on the black and white screen
Gene Autry’s shirt was black
his horse Champion was black or gray
with a white patch down his nose
Gene’s hat was white and seldom left his head
his sparkling guns blazed white
his guitar was plain gray wood and strings
the mountains in the background and the trees
were black and gray and white
the shadows as in life were always black
Gene smiled and sang happy through his sparkling white teeth
till down Mexico way
the sad and pretty senorita in the black shawl
watched him ride off North to the border
waving promises
she cried and waited and prayed herself to whiteness
in the black shadows of the candlelight
that’s where he found her when he came back one day
she didn’t see him black in the shadow
then he rode off
yipee ky yi yay
back in the saddle

Carmen Leone
© 2014

Image Links to its source on Wiki Commons
Publicity photo of Gene Autry for his appearance at a banquet to announce a contest for the Seattle Packing Company-Bar-S brand.  14 April 1960
Wikipedia claims that this image was not copyrighted, & therefore is in the public domain. Specifically, Wiki Commons states: “This work is in the public domain in that it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice.”

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sighs of Autumn Rain #3 (After Du Fu)

Sighs of Autumn Rain #3 (After Du Fu)

in Chang’an who will notice the commoner?
locked behind gates & watching behind walls
the old folk don’t venture out & weeds sprout
children bustle unworried through wind & rain
the rain moans & sighs & carries the chill early
the goose finds it hard to fly on wet wings
since Autumn has come we haven’t seen the white sun
when will the muddy dirt again become dry earth

Jack Hayes
© 2014
based on Du Fu:
秋雨叹三首 (三)
qiū yǔ tàn sān shǒu (sān)

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons
View of Chang’an: mural in Prince Yide’s tomb, 706 AD, unknown artist
Public domain