Tag Archives: United States

President’s Day Jam

20 Feb

Paste Magazine had a clever music-related idea for honoring the presidents on this President’s Day. They took each president’s term and matched it with a song that correctly related to said president. You can view all of the pairings here.

A fun commander-in-chief music game? Count me in. What else am I supposed to do on my day off? Now, of course, many songs can fit different presidencies, but I think the author did a good job establishing fun pairings. There were a few cop-out choices. Picking a song about specifically about the president to describe his candidacy is a little too convenient. But seriously, what better song describes President James K. Polk than the They Might Be Giants’ classic?

I don’t know what’s funnier; the song itself or the kids dancing.

For President Teddy Roosevelt, the writer chose an Elvis song, “Teddy Bear” because of obvious reasons (the Teddy Bear was/is important). But, come on, Teddy is known for being a presidential bad-ass; a big-game hunter and environmentalist who met adversity with pugnacious fortitude. Teddy Bear? Come on. He deserves something a cooler than that. Here’s my choice for the U.S.’ brash 26th president and one of our biggest patriots.

Pretty much a no-nonsense patriotic tune about the United States. It would obviously be anachronistic in Teddy’s time, but, I think it suits presidential passion well.

Best choice on the list?

Guess the president? Haha. I also liked the choice for President Obama. The author mentioned the temptation to pick “A Change is Going to Come” by Sam Cooke, which he did use in his campaign. I would also have been tempted by this particular version of “We Shall Overcome”:

What do you think are some good songs that represent presidents? Comment!

Blackbird with Blue Eyes

13 Sep

Can you guess the two songs that are going to be featured in this version of “Six Degrees of Your iPod?” For those new to the Music Court, “Six Degrees of Your iPod” is a little iPod-related game we play at the blog. It’s not iPod specific, actually. Any randomized music generator will do. Here are the rules. Take out your music device and put it on shuffle. Then skip through six songs and write them all down. Can you connect the first song to the sixth song? That’s the purpose of the game. Random music connections! I’d love to read any of your own attempts at the game, so if you happen to be shuffling through your portable music device and you play, please comment with your results. Here is what I came up with today. The first song to appear was:

1.) “Blackbird” by The Beatles

Can you get any better than this simple McCartney classic? Seriously, McCartney and Lennon were masters of short and sweet pieces. Well, they were masters of all types of songs. I’m sure if you asked them to lay down some salsa beats they would have obliged. But that is completely irrelevant.

McCartney wrote “Blackbird” as a symbolic piece dedicated to the civil rights struggle of African Americans in the United States. The peaceful guitar riff was inspired by Bach’s “Bourree in E Minor, which was a lute piece that, as children, George Harrison and him tried to learn to show off. And, humorously, “Blackbird” is now a beginner guitar necessity. Just like “Smoke on the Water” anyone who picks up a guitar must try his/her hand at playing “Blackbird,” in some parts to show off to the room.

The song appeared on the White Album.

2.) “In The Pockets” by The Tallest Man on Earth

3.) “Genesis 3:23” by The Mountain Goats

4.) “Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War

5.) Generator ^ First Floor” by Freelance Whales

6.) “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by CSN(Y)

Crosby Stills Nash and Sometimes Young. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” arguably this super groups most famous song, sparked the formation of CSN in the first place. The song, written by Stephen Stills, works with a crafty, somewhat deceptive title. Suite, in the classic sense, means an ordered set of musical pieces, usually four in number like the song. And then the possible  Sweet refers to the song’s subject, Stills’ ex-girlfriend, singer-songwriter Judy Collins, who apparently has some pretty sweet blue eyes. It really is one hell of a break-up song.

Connection: There are some interesting connections between both the Beatles and CSNY and there is an independent connection between the songs. After forming, prior to Neil Young joining the group, the group failed an audition at the Beatles’ Apple Records. That wasn’t a very wise move for the label. The band became pretty succesful. But there were no hard feelings. The band’s first live gig was at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago in August of 1969 and the band opened with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” before launching into a cover of…”Blackbird” by the Beatles. Cool, right? The show was on August 17. Hmm…that date sounds familiar. They mentioned that they would be performing the next day at something called Woodstock, wherever that was. Well, after the show they went to Woodstock, where they went on stage at 3 a.m., August 18, and performed “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” followed by “Blackbird” again.

The Beatles did not perform at Woodstock for a variety of potential reasons. Lennon may have requested there be a spot of Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band which was denied. I doubt that, though. I could’ve performed there. I mean, Sha Na Na did. Another potential reason was that Lennon wanted to play but his entrance into the U.S. from Canada was blocked by Nixon. Also, seems a bit farfetched. Most likely it was a combination of the Beatles’ being on the verge of collapse and the fact that they had not performed an official concert since 1966.

9/11 – A Remembrance

9 Sep

When 9/11 is broached in conversation a constant question asked is what you remember from the day. As human beings, we are linked by our rich memories and bonded by the emotions that can forever be emitted by these mental images. The stories are telling because most of them luckily don’t involve the initial direct contact that some were unfortunate enough to observe. No, most stories involve work or school, where first notice of the traumatic events was shared by a co-worker, peer, loved one, or, in some cases, random individuals whom you will always remember because they shared with you an item of news that still gives you a knot in your  stomach today.

When the first and second plane penetrated the leviathan New York City towers, I was sitting in technology class, a 12-year-old in seventh grade. A student broke the news to the class. We were then transferred to another technology class across the hall where we sat and discussed the interruption to the normal Tuesday school day. I don’t believe our superiors knew how to handle the situation. Throughout the day, more and more classes were like this until the day ended and we were bussed home. My parents and I then sat in front of the television in their room and watched the planes hit the trade centers over and over and over again, like a movie scene on terrible repeat. And, to be honest, that is all I remember.

It seems rather peculiar that such a fateful day did not store more images in my mind. I was 12, immature and fallow. I was certainly not mature enough to fully understand the gravity of the situation. I knew that it was terrible and I felt awful, but my pre-pubescent mind did not emotionally grasp the day’s events. I was too young then. I am not, now.

As I voraciously read the remarkable 10-year-anniversary coverage completed by the New York Times, New Yorker, Newsday, among several other New York media outlets, I put myself in the mind of a 21-year-old man, just out of college, commuting to his first job at the World Trade Center, the same monstrous building that his grandparents took him to when he was a little boy – the buildings he attempted to cover with his thumb at long distances and touched with the same thumb when he was outside them looking up, up, up trying unsuccessfully to see the top. I think of a cloudless, almost relaxed Tuesday morning, where a sharp blue sky and bright sun reflected off of glass buildings and the irrepressible chatter of early-morning New Yorkers. That 21-year-old gets to work early, striped blue button down, black slacks, combed light brown hair that would darken as the sunny summer passed, a black briefcase – his entire wardrobe picked out with the help of his proud parents. He takes the elevator up and up and up, until he can see the top of the building. He sits at his desk, exchanges pleasantries with his co-workers who are already making their plans for the weekend, turns on his computer and…

We are ten years removed from 9/11 and I have become my created character, a bright-eyed 21-year-old working at his first job in the city. My quotidian routine has formed and the circadian rhythm of weekdays has been bolstered by repetition. But, you see, that 21-year-old in September of 2001 did not come home that Tuesday and he will never come home as a 31-year-old with kids of his own, and I can’t shake the fact that on Sept. 11, 2001, a date that will forever be implanted in the structure of New York City like an ineffaceable tattoo, men and women got up, went on the train, settled in at work, and died. I can’t conceive it, I can’t comprehend it, and I don’t think any one will ever be able to.

As I was reading through a variety of stories about the day, I came across a quotation from an individual who had escaped the buildings prior to their collapse. As he was evacuating the buildings, he noticed a tall, slender man, in black dress shoes plummeting to the ground outside of the window. He shook his head and the first thought to pop in his head was, ‘the firefighters have already set up nets on the bottom.’ And then he shook the thought and realized that no one could survive a fall of that many stories at the velocity they were traveling. But the irrational thought was the first to cross his mind, because when you are presented with an obscene and absurd reality, it is only human to think that everything is going to be okay. The images of those falling still seem unreal today. I have trouble even typing these words. And those who remained trapped in conference rooms or offices who called loved ones for the last time to assure them that they were trying to get out. And the emergency personnel who sacrificed their lives and climbed the burning building to try to rescue everyone they could. That’s who we should remember today. Because, when many think of 9/11 they think of the after effects. They think of how improved radio technology could have helped firefighters escape and how the events sparked two ongoing costly wars. Conspiracy theories are propagated because of the human necessity to question everything, especially something so unexplainable. But at least on Sunday, let’s please all remember those who do not have the luxury to ponder such things because they died in the towers, the pentagon, or the planes.

Let’s remember them, and let’s remember the sincere brotherhood and kindness that temporarily washed over the country. Let’s remember the refreshing quiet that let everyone mourn the events and the timely patriotism that, at least for a few days, was not vitiated. Try to remember such human emotions and, maybe, attempt to implement these strong feelings again. We are capable. We are human. We have flaws, but, at such a volatile time in our country, it is not appropriate to spew vitriol and vituperate. It’s time to work together to solve the troubles facing our nation and I think that this anniversary provides a great starting point.

Now, while this was not much of a music post, I still want to provide a peaceful song for Sunday.

The Rock Island Line Is the Road To Ride

7 Sep

Well, here’s the story about the Rock Island Line. You see, the Rock Island Line is a good road, but you need to pay a toll unless you have certain goods, like livestock. So, if you can just trick the man at the toll gate that you have livestock, you can go on through without paying a cent.

That’s the premise of a timeless set of lyrics that have adapted, evolved and survived for over 80 years. Yes, the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road. The Rock Island Line is the road to ride. The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road so da da da da da da da da da da da gosh this lyric is fast.

If you are a fan of American blues/folk music you definitely know “Rock Island Line,” a traditional piece recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the blues man himself, Huddie Ledbetter (more famously known as Lead Belly). And, like is the case for most traditional songs, people often attribute song credits to the artist they first heard perform it. For the longest time, I thought Johnny Cash created the famous ditty. But I was educated. “Rock Island Line” has a history rooted in the prison gangs of Arkansas. Journey with me to find the first known versions of the song about the mighty good road.

Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar and extensive list of folk songs have made him one of the most revered early 20th century blues performers. He is also one of the first people to ever record “Rock Island Line.” There is controversy over the true foundations of this classic. What we do know is that folk/blues historians and preservers Alan and John Lomax heard the song at an Arkansas prison and recorded it. One version of the story has Alan and John Lomax hearing the song performed by convict composer Kelly Pace in 1934 at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas. It then states that Lead Belly heard and rearranged the piece and released his own version in 1937.

But while that version is cited in Alan Lomax‘s book The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, published in 1964, an analysis of Lomax’s old recordings at the Library of Congress proves that the song was actually recorded earlier at another prison in Little Rock, Arkansas. This time, Lead Belly is actually with the Lomax’s when they hear the song being sung a cappella by a prison work gang. Lead Belly wrote down the lyrics, rearranged it and recorded this:

Do note the laid-back folk style of the recording. Keep in mind the initial narration also (because this changes). First off, Lead Belly gives an explanation of how the train stops and says that the man does not want to stop the train.  This does not appear elsewhere. Lead Belly also describes more animals than other versions. Also, notice how Lead Belly makes no mention of the train speeding up prior to the song speeding up. But we do get the trickery of pig iron and this stays consistent. For those who have listened to newer versions, the lyric is certainly a bit different. The part that does stay constant is the hook:

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – The Rock Island Line is the road to ride – The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you find it – Get your ticket at the station of the Rock Island Line.

Before every chorus repetition, Lead Belly sings something religious. For example, in this version he says, Jesus died to save our sins Glory to God I’m gonna see Him again. This is important, because it changes. Let’s move now to perhaps the most famous recording of the song (no not Johnny Cash).

Lonnie Donegan pretty much started the mid-late 50’s British skiffle craze with his sped-up, slightly changed recording of Lead Belly’s version of the  “Rock Island Line.” Skiffle, a blend of blues, jazz, folk music usually played with homemade instruments like washboards and tea-chest bass, became incredibly popular in this span of time. The Beatles emerged out of John Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen. Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Roger Daltrey, Robin Trower, David Gilmour all played skiffle music before forming rock bands and creating some of the greatest music ever in the 60s. Yes, skiffle had quite the influence despite its humorous name. Anyway, back to Donegan.

I have one problem with Donegan. He received considerable music publishing royalties from “Rock Island Line” by claiming the British copyright on the unregistered song which was considered to be in the public domain. I understand that this was obviously a “good” move, but he did nothing to credit Lead Belly and, come on, give some credit to the guy! But besides that, Donegan’s version did inspire most of the other versions of the song because he really sped it up and gave it the fun swing we all know.

Donegan actually tells it like a story. He reads it like it was from a book. His narration is a little different from Lead Belly’s, but it keeps the same concept. And, like in Lead Belly’s song, we are in New Orleans. Donegan lists off less livestock than Lead Belly and he spells out the story a little more. He then speeds the train up, unlike Lead Belly. Then we are all tricked again because he has pig iron. You know, I have to stop trusting people who say they have livestock when they clearly have pig iron.

In the recording you can hear the washboard and tea-chest bass and this just adds to the song’s awesomeness. Also, quite importantly, the hint of religion that Lead Belly put in the song was shifted slightly by Donegan. He does mention the Lord seeing him again, but instead of two other pre-chorus religious statements, Donegan has one and he says, “ABC WXYZ, The cats on the cover but he don’t see me.”

All the religion is out of the song when Cash gets his hand on it.

Johnny Cash recorded “Rock Island Line” in 1957, probably because the Rock Island Line is really a mighty good road. Cash tells a similar story. And, guess what, he fooled you. He had pig iron. All pig iron. Damn, three times!

Here’s where things change. After the usual chorus Cash sings two pre-chorus’ that are completely different than the other versions. They are:

Looked cloudy in the west and it looked like rain
Round the curve came a passenger train
North bound train on the southbound track
he’s alright a leavin’ but he won’t be back

Oh I may be right and I may be wrong
But you gonna miss me when I’m gone
Well the engineer said before he died
There were two more drinks that he’d like to try
The conductor said what could they be
A hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea

Pretty cool touch if you ask me. So, that’s the story of the Rock Island Line. And to think, if the toll gate man wasn’t so gullible, the song would have never existed…and our sly conductor would be out some money for the toll.

Trust me Grandson

30 May

A quick follow-up to Anthony’s new Memorial Day inspired Musical Lexicon. This is in no way attempting to steal Anthony’s thunder, but cease your Google search for “The War Was in Color,” I’m just going to post it right here. Anthony and I are on similar wavelengths. “The War Was in Color” is one of Virginia folk/celtic rock band Carbon Leaf‘s best songs.

It is also a perfect pairing for Memorial Day, where since the Civil War we have honored those who have fought and continue to fight for the privilege of being a free American. The true meaning of this day is often lost to the gas grill and the cool wetness of a dip in the pool. Many people have marked Memorial Day as an unofficial beginning of summer and this has transformed the holiday into a day of festive family get-togethers.

I don’t believe this transformation is a perversion of the holiday. Some are quick to point out that by consuming franks and burgers while tanning in backyards across the country, Americans are not fulfilling their duty of honoring the military men and women (and dogs) that keep us safe. But I would argue that our actions represent a celebration of being American and being free. I do urge everyone to take a moment today to just think of the soldier lost during World War II whose body was never recovered. The soldier who is forever memorialized in grainy black and white photographs that will inevitably wither away with the memory of him throughout time. Think of the soldier in Afghanistan who cannot be with his daughter and wife today. Salute the memory of those lost and the life of those currently serving. Here is “The War Was in Color”

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