Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Plowmen Till My Earth: Introduction

.....After Thanksgiving I continued listening to The Band's Last Waltz 4CD set released in 2002 (diplomatically, between the silver anniversaries of the concert in 1976 and resulting film/album project in 1978) and reading an excellent examination of the different configurations of recordings released over the last forty years available on their website. Most versions are incomplete and the songs presented out of the order in which they were performed. The article provided a clearer picture of the events of the day and I couldn't think of anything I could comment on here that would add anything of value, beyond going into detail about The Band's relationship to each of the guests on the bill and that information is already available online, albeit scattered.

.....As I put together newspapers for recycling I noticed an obituary I had seen before, but which had slipped my mind during the fuss over holidays. There have been many deaths in the music business this year (David Bowie's 70th birthday is in a week; don't think you won't hear about that), so it would have easy for many and excusable for some to have overlooked it, but Milt Okun died just before Thanksgiving. Okun was best known as a producer, but he has touched the lives of many musicians in many ways, including as a publisher, composer and even as a sound editor. He played a large part in the background of the emergence of what I used to call "barbershop folk", characterized by traditional (or at least public domain) songs sung by scrubbed, clean shaven young people in matching outfits. (Think of the film "A Mighty Wind". Or the Bob Dylan song "Talkin' New York Blues".) It wasn't completely unrelated to the real folk music scene; most if not all of the acts played in the same clubs as people who would never get on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Okun produced the recordings that brought folk to middle America just as Nat King Cole did for jazz.The Band only ever became known to most Americans because Bob Dylan recruited them to be his touring band in the mid-60's and Bob Dylan was only ever able to tour enough to need a band because of a ball set in motion by several people including Milt Okun.

.....To set some perspective, in the late 1950's the emergence of rock music was being met with resistance, sometimes violently but more often from state and local officials under pressure from white supremacist groups who objected to the fact that it drew upon both traditionally white and black music forms and moreso that white teenagers enjoyed it. Sometimes that pressure was direct and sometimes it was through national elected officials who relied on these domestic terrorist groups as a part of their campaign apparatus. In a short period of time the major players were either dead (Buddy Holly, et al), drafted (Elvis Presley), jailed (Chuck Berry) or otherwise blackballed (Jerry Lee Lewis). Of course, there were many who simply objected to rock for aesthetic reasons. One of the most strident of these voices was Mitch Miller, a recording industry fixture for many years who wore several hats: arranger, conductor and producer, but to the general public he was best known as the host of the television show "Sing Along With Mitch". Most importantly in music history, he was the head of the Artists and Repertoire department at Columbia Records. Having issued the first major contracts to Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis and having put Leslie Uggams on television every week, Miller couldn't possibly have perceived himself as being in the same boat as the various "Citizens Councils" that kept rock records off certain radio stations. And it would unfair and inaccurate to paint him that way. However, he was very likely among the many at the time who saw blues and jazz as forms of minstrelsy used to demean and oppress African Americans, and that black musicians were 'liberated' to the extent that they sounded like white musicians. There's little doubt that his heavy hand regarding selecting material and arrangements drove Franklin to Atlantic records after recording eight albums for Columbia in six years. For all her effort, only the 1961 single, "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" barely squeaked into the top 40. By contrast, her first nine Altantic A-sides were each Top 10 Pop chart hits (that's Billboard Pop, not the R&B chart which skewed to black artists). It's no wonder most people think her career started with "Respect" in 1967. Her last Columbia album may have been called "Soul Sister", but with material like "Ol' Man River", "Swanee" and "You Made Me Love You", she probably couldn't care less that nobody remembers it.

.....With Miller's influence in the music business and preference for repertoire in public domain (no royalties, you see), there became an inroad into the recording industry for people with a knowledge of traditional American music so long as they were willing to perform it in a stiff, almost neo-classicist style. While this wasn't Milt Okun's mission in life, it meant work for performers who would have been unlikely to get a recording contract even a few years earlier. It didn't take long for other labels to follow suit. It also didn't take long for a folk revival to take root on American college campuses. With the most vital rock acts missing it was easy for young adults to dismiss rock music as a passé and juvenile fad. These were people who came of age in the Cold War being told that American freedoms must be preserved at all costs and as they prepared to enter the adult world and be the ones who would be responsible for that preservation, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the greatest threats to the American Dream were coming from within-- the selfsame officials and Citizens Councils that pursued segregationist policies (and worse) and pushed rock into relative obscurity. They didn't know it yet, but the nation's racist power brokers had made the same mistake that the Shah of Iran would make years later, but in reverse. The Shah eliminated his most civilized and reasoned critics in every aspect of modern Iranian culture-- academics, politics, economics; intellectuals and respected civic leaders of all kinds were exiled or imprisoned, tortured or intimidated into silence, some dying in custody or simply disappearing. The only ones he didn't bother with were the craziest of the religious polemicists because the general public didn't have any respect for them, so they couldn't form an effective opposition. However, because of his purges, the Shah left the public with no one to voice their concerns except the severest religious extremists. He essentially delivered to them the public support they could never get on their own. Enter the Ayatollah. In America in 1959, those who needed civil rights repression in order to stay in power put all their energies into persecuting whoever couldn't fight back, had no political inclinations or insights, little or no formal education, no extended network of social support in the form of middle class families or military background and the least articulate. What was left was an army of English majors with a decades long history of organizing social and political activism who now had the flag and apple pie on their side. There was something distinctly American about American folk music and something distinctly anti-American about the Confederacy.

.....One of those young fans of folk music was a Cornell freshman named Lenny Lipton who, having read an Ogden Nash poem, "The Tale of Custard The Dragon" about a girl named Belinda and her cowardly pet dragon, was inspired to write his own poem about a boy who "prepared to enter the adult world" and take on greater responsibilities, leaving his own pet dragon to carry on without him. A fellow student named Peter Yarrow set it to music and would sometimes include it while performing. (You realize we're talking about "Puff, The Magic Dragon", right?) In Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located, there's a Cherry Road and a Cherry Street. There's even a Cherry Street in Brooklyn, where Lipton was born, but not a Cherry Lane. How that made it into the song, I don't know. I also don't know why a theatrical troupe in Greenwich Village back in the 1920's would refurbish a box factory on Commercial St. and rename it the Cherry Lane Theater when there's no Cherry Lane in Manhattan, either. But in 1960, while Lipton was working on his physics degree, Milt Okun formed a music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing, in the offices above the theater. Also working in New York was a young man who left his home in the midwest with hopes of becoming a rock musician. During the course of that journey he, too, became deeply impressed by the power of American folk, as exemplified by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, to touch people and spell out the human condition in stark, honest terms. And Mitch Miller couldn't have had any idea what he was getting into when Bob Dylan signed to Columbia Records in 1961, but in just two years after that Yarrow, Okun, Dylan and others would ignite a phenomenon of the 1960's that's still burning today: Dylan covers.

Next post: "Plowmen Till My Earth" continues with "Broadsides, Blowin' and Brothers", plus the reason why that's not the right lyric

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Last Waltz

Today, Thanksgiving in the U.S., November 24th, 2016, is being recognized as the 40th Anniversary of the concert by The Band known as The Last Waltz. It was both filmed and sound recorded, resulting in a documentary film directed by Martin Scorcese and a triple-LP released by Warner Bros. (although their prior albums were mostly on Capitol-- except for two recorded with Dylan when he was renegotiating with his own label, Columbia). The actual date of the concert was November 25th, 1976. This month there have already been several retail items released to commemorate the event, including a 2CD set replicating the 3LP album and a deluxe package that appears to pair the 2002 4CD set with a Blu-ray disc of the Scorcese film.

The reason why this was preserved for posterity at all, let alone revisited periodically as it has been, becomes immediately evident to anyone who has seen the film, even though it relates only a fraction of the proceedings. Guitarist and principal lyricist Robbie Robertson was leaving the group. At the time, and for some time after the film hit theaters in 1978, it was widely believed that the group was splitting up entirely. Interviews since then indicate that was not the intention of the other members but public perception has a way of shaping self-fulfilling prophesies. Other members would tour and record separately and in combinations, including as "The Band", but the performances that night were fantastic even if the title isn't 100% accurate.

The whole event was roughly nine hours, including four hours of music, Thanksgiving dinner for 5000 people, plus prior band rehearsals and later studio recordings to complete the two planned media projects. Joining The Band onstage were a wish-list of headlining musicians and singers they've worked with or for. The only one I can think of that wasn't evident was Allen Toussaint. To date there has never been a legitimate release of the full day's recordings and it's unlikely there ever will be. Perhaps for the 50th Anniversary a raw source tape without edits or overdubbing will stream online on Thanksgiving as background music for people who don't watch football.

Well, leftovers are calling me. If Black Friday proceedings don't slow the internet to a crawl then I'll probably add some thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hall of Shame Update 2013

.....Before the year ends I should note that the recent list of inductees (pared down from an earlier list of nominees) released by the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, as well as last year's, contains names from my 2011 list of deserving candidates who have been undeservedly passed over. My "Checklist of Shame" occupied ten posts over three weeks plus one the following January. The shame, it should be noted, was on the Hall, not the artists. I named over 150 acts in the Checklist itself and more in the ranty paragraphs that began and ended each posts. In the rants preceding the second post (Sept. 29, 2011) I included Lou Adler among the non-performers "inexplicably missing"; he was later inducted in 2013. Next year Kiss and Peter Gabriel are due to be inducted. Also, as I correctly predicted (Sept. 28, 2011), Public Enemy was inducted last year in its first year of eligibility.

.....Hopefully I'll be able to record more of my thoughts in the coming year (perhaps update that list), even if it's only a random "what I'm listening to at the moment" approach; anything to prime the pump and stimulate further productivity.

.....We'll see what the New Year brings. You're always welcome to leave questions and suggestions in the comments. Even when I leave gaps between posts, the comments are forwarded.


Saturday, July 06, 2013

Annual link check

.....I make a point of testing all the links to external sites once a year and this year two were apparently discontinued. One, not too surprisingly, was the link to the page for the classical music label L'Oiseau Lyre which I used as a representation of original instrument recordings. Unlike rock, classical music has been undergoing development for centuries and the cumulative effect of perpetual tweaking and improvement to the instruments as well as innovative performance techniques is dramatic when you look at works written centuries apart. The original instrument movement began when music scholars discovered significant differences between sheet music written 300 years ago and copies of the same pieces of music from 100 years ago. Publishers, often without the composer's knowledge or permission, would rewrite parts for larger orchestras and for instruments that didn't exist when the piece was originally composed. If you don't know classical music very well the best way to explain the motivation for building new instruments to older specifications (before technological improvements that enabled them to project further and sustain longer) in order to play pieces in their original arrangements, imagine listening to blues and roots music played on a 1979 Casio keyboard.

.....L'oiseau Lyre began as a publishing company about 80 years ago. In the 1960's it applied its imprint to a series of recordings produced by Decca, leading to the establishment of the label. Eventually Decca became one of hundreds of labels absorbed into Universal and maintaining individual websites for all its subsidiaries seemed neither cost effective nor at all helpful in leading potential customers to the music offered by any one label. At the moment the archives of the publishing company have been relocated to the University of Melbourne (either physically or at least to their custody-- I'm not sure if the difference matters in the digital age). When I get back to posting with regularity I'll consider finding a suitable replacement.

.....The other link to disappear was a site devoted to Monty Python that seemed to be maintained by fans. I suppose an adequate replacement might be something involving Neil Innes or Eric Idle, who together were largely responsible for the musical content coming from Monty Python projects (TV, records and movies) with a few exceptions. As this blog is part music critic, part archaeologist, I preferred using fan-generated sites because artists rarely have anything to gain by cataloging discontinued packaging rather than just marketing the content. Some, such as the U2 official site, are absolutely fantastic. I have found a strong possible replacement. One drawback is that while I intend to send readers directly to the section on records and CD's I have no control over where they wander once there and the link for the home page begins a sequence of screens that simulate the opening credits to the "Holy Grail" movie. It's both funny and apt, but to emphasize the experience of watching the movie on film (as in a theater), it uses a program (probably from the 90's) that causes the screen to rapidly flash to simulate the film flickering. There are now smart phone apps that can impose a more convincing effect on moving footage and I'm concerned that this more primitive flashing effect might prompt seizures in a small minority of visitors. I'll include a link to the site here and accept comments from anyone who might have better information on this topic.


.....I hope to be posting again soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Halloween Music reminder

.....I hope it's not too late to be of help, but two years ago I offered six posts which each contained a 45-minute playlist of Halloween songs and the names of the albums where they can be found. The earliest two were all-kid friendly because there are many neighborhoods where parents prefer to offer parties for pre-teens who are too old to willingly walk around with their parents but not old enough to deal with what might be out there at night. And frankly, most of the prepacked collections of Halloween music marketed for kids are intended for very small children; they sound embarrassingly babyish to an 11-year-old. There are some all-ages songs on the other four as well and would work with adult get-togethers just as nicely.

.....You can follow the program order if you like or just cobble your own playlist from what's in your collection (it's amazing how many of these songs come from common, mainstream major label albums many people have lying around). Spend an hour or two for a few days loading them onto an iPod or, for six hours of continuous play, run your audio output into your old VCR (you may want to blow the dust out of it first) and then before the party plug the VCR's output into your stereo system (or hold the party in your house and show silent horror movies while the music plays).

.....You can access these posts at any time by clicking on the link "Halloween" on the right side of this page. Blogger will list the posts in reverse order. Have Fun!