Pt2–MY MUSICAL TOP 100–AND YOURS IF YOU WANT
It’s a wide, wide world—musically, too.
Listening to a pioneering radio reggae program in the early 1970s, I said to my wife, “That guy Bob Marley is a GOOD songwriter.” In the 40 or so years since, he’s proved that to the world.
“Get Up, Stand Up” has become iconic and a worldwide anthem, besides being a good reason to get up, stand up, and dance.
This is another great reggae song from the 1970s. I gave a copy to a Middlebury Union high school kid who only weighed 160 pounds but was the quarterback and punter on the football team, an all-range scoring threat and wizard passer and the best defender I have ever seen on a high school court in basketball, and the shortstop and a pitcher on the baseball team.
My feeling is that Greek folk music has preserved something of the sound of the very first seriously thought-out music.
Markos Vamvakaris was an alienaris, as the Greek equivalent of beatniks were called in the 1930s—a virtuoso bazouki player (stringed instrument somewhat like a guitar and eventually a famous songwriter. He is said to have wandered the streets at night, unable to sleep because of all the thoughts crowding into his head. He survived World War Two and in time became a star in the world of Greek music. There are scads of “videos” of him on YouTube, many with Greek text, along with a couple of documentaries about him. It’s hard to pick one, but what I’ve linked to is from his youth, from 1937, and is a good representative.
I’ve followed that with a link to one in a collection of 121 examples of Greek rembetika. If you saw the movie “Zorba the Greek you know what kind of power this tradition has.
This is the music that accompanies the final scene of “Zorba the Greek:”
Klezmer goes into my bloodstream—on both sides of my family I’m Hungarian. Eastern European Jewish immigrants, their music influenced by that of the Rom (gypsies), blended that cultural stream with American influences to create a new tradition, which has developed an international following. One of my favorite musicians of all time is the early 20th century klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein, This is “Nifty’s Freilach,” the word being associated, like “frolic,” with joy.
This video, a violin solo of an old Hungarian klezmer piece, is not the best musical representative but it is accompanied by wonderful pictures of photos and art from the pre-war era.
Klezmer carries on. This is from an album by a New York City outfit, titled “Rhythm and Jews:”
In college, the girls in my wife-to-be’s dormitory would gather to sing folk songs, led by the daughter of a Bishop of Maine. This was one of the songs I liked best. I’m haunted by it because I have learned since that it was created for this country’s Yiddish National Theater, in 1941. When your house catches fire, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT
Flamenco, sometimes called “the Spanish blues, may have been preempted in this country by more popular Hispanic genres. There may have been some influence from the Ottoman takeover of much of Spain; in Manitas de Plata’s long love lament “Little Moorish Girls,” one of the listeners is picked up by the microphone saying, “Eso es canto Moro!” (This is Moorish singing).
I grew up with flamenco. When the Brandon Free Public Library was lending out vinyl records, one was a boxed set of the work of Manitas de Plata (“hands of silver,” popular name for Ricardo Baliardo), which we kept taking out.. He’s too good to have been lost to time. Here are a couple of his pieces.
The first shows off the way flamenco playing has been partnered with flamenco dancing. There isn’t a video of the latter, but it’s easy to imagine.
This shows the handsome devil on British TV in 1971. Makes me think of the title of a piece by blues great Lightning Hopkins: “Watch My Fingers.”
There are various sub-genres within flamenco. This is another flamenco great, Sabicas, doing an alegrias.
Flamenco dancing and singing is chaste yet charged with the frustrations of love. It’s easy to see where the tango came from.
The “canto moro” I mentioned might owe something to the reciting of the Qu’ran. “Reciting” is a word used, but “incantation” might be more descriptive. This is one of the best-known sounds in the world, though most Americans aren’t familiar with it. Former Goshen, Vermont resident, the late Ahmad Abdul Aleem, played a recording of a master reciter and I bought it from him. It’s said that a skilled reciter can move listeners to tears; I don’t doubt it.
This is the complete 19th sura, 30 minutes long, about Maryam, the mother of Jesus. Part of this was on the record I bought. Merry Christmas.
While we’re in the Moorish part of the world: our word “lute” is related to the name of a stringed instrument still played in the Arabic World. There is a large repertoire of music for this instrument—I would compare the situation with Indian sitar music—but I’m not familiar with it. But I’ve linked to something by a master oud player and singer to illustrate the richness of the tradition. The lyrics, about peace, are worth heeding.
One of the tragedies of the warfare in Mali is what it may have done to the traditions of griots, as they are now known internationally—members of lineages of musician/storytellers who have for generations preserve the culture and history of the region. Some of the most skilled players of the kora, a stringed instrument more complex than the guitar often used by the griots, have toured in this country.
The Diabate clan is one of the best-known of the griot (jeli) names. This is Mamadou Diabate:
West Africa has the guitar, too. Slavery and what came before slavery made the blues possible. Here’s Boubacar Traore doing “Mariama,” part of a big compilation of African pieces.
Influences and collaborations cross oceans now. One that’s in my top list is from “Timbuktu Blues,” an album that brought together American Ry Cooder and Mali’s Ali Farka Toure. A Public Radio International program used the opening of “Diaraby” as the theme music for their geography quiz; I found the music gripping, contacted the program, and found out the source. (Answer to the Geo Quiz: Timbuktu is an ancient city in Mali, important for centuries as a key point on cross-Saharan trade routes.) I could tell without any translation that, like many blues songs, it was about the pain of love, but an Internet comment provided this information: “The vocals tell the story of a couple fighting to overcome obstacles to their love, the biggest of which seems to be their respective families (and yes I do speak the language). R.I.P. King Toure. You are forever.”
Now listen to this:
This is Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, doing “The Grey Goose.” On the surface it’s a children’s song; What I have read and believe is that it was slave code for their endurance some day letting them go back to Africa. Top 100.
In spite of everything, when World War Two came black soldiers and sailors and aviators (look up the Tuskeegee Airmen) fought like wildcats. This is Leadbelly doing “Mr. Hitler:”
Son House, “American Defense.” “ No use of shedding no tears, no use of having no fears—this war may last you for years.”
Not all blues love songs are about troubles. Definitely in my top 100 is “Sweet Jivin’ Woman” by Blind (Arthur) Blake. “My friends all tell me, don’t listen to no woman-talk…But a sweet jivin’ mama makes me pick up my bed and walk.”
Blind Blake does some great comic songs, too, like “That Will Never Happen No More.” Don’t know who’s doing the rhythm on the spoons or bones.
Speaking of comedy, the jug band was made for fun. Using improvised instruments like the washtub-stick-and-G-string bass, the washboard for rhythm, and the jug instead of brass, the early practitioners created a genre that has never disappeared. I consider the Dixieland Jug Blowers the best. “House Rent Rag” is their version of a gospel revival meeting:
Their 1926 numbers “Boodle-am-shake” and “Banjoreno” to my mind evoke the heyday of the 1920s better than anything else than videos of the Lindy Hop. I’m linking to “Banjoreno” because it is purely instrumental, but absolutely characteristic of the era—I’d say work of genius. Think of it if you read, or have read, “The Great Gatsby.”
And there are the blues songs about what poet William Carlos Williams called “the hard give-and-take” between a man and a woman. I’d match the verses in the 1927 song “James Alley Blues” by Richard “Rabbit” Brown with anything ever done on the subject.
The country blues tradition has its translators, in the sense that modern musicians who have been drawn by its power rather than pushed by experience, have done some very good work. The one for which I have the greatest esteem is Martin Grosswendt. I had no knowledge of him when he came to Middlebury, Vermont’s Renaissance Folk Club in the early 1980s. He got onstage, took out his guitar, and said “I just drove up from New Jersey so I don’t know how this is going to sound. (He lives in Rhode Island; as of 2013 he was still performing.)
He took a couple of back-beats and went on a tear. After his blues-heavy concert—he is particularly good at summoning Blind Blake–I told him, ”You’ve put a new grin on my face.”
It irks me that Greg Allman’s version of the Sleepy John Estes song “Floating Bridge” became a national hit and Grosswendt’s arrangement, which is sheer genius, remains almost unknown. I couldn’t find a video of that, but here is an example of how he brings the Deep South to life, this time playing the banjo.
Some of the best musicians of the blues era were on the opposite side of the aisle, so to speak, being primarily religious musicians. One of the best was the Reverend Gary Davis. Copyright issues blocked “Motherless Children,” but this is a good example of his talent. Note how this points toward rap.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, aka Deacon L. J. Bates, was another musician whose steady playing echoes the driving power of railroad engines. This Top 100 example, “True Religion.” includes a reference to the unstoppability of the railroad, as a metaphor for death—something found in other songs of the era (you see Gospel Train” in some of the titles), both black and white.
Mississippi Fred McDowell was another black musician rescued by the Sixties and brought to national attention. This 1969 recording “Shake ‘Em On Down” is electric, in more ways than one. Top 100.
Bob Dylan learned from the blues and from the folk tradition generally then went so far beyond them that he came to be as close to the voice of my generation, of the Sixties, as anyone could have been. I remember one issue of my college’s student newspaper (whose editor at the time has become an Atlantic Monthly and National Public Radio commentator) used the titles of Dylan songs for every article.
The albums he put out before as motorcycle accident halted his momentum cross the line into poetry, in my opinion. Some of his love songs are the wittiest verses of the kind since Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne.
There are so many songs I couldn’t do without, but I’ll start with one—“It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”–that conveys the authentic feeling of many young people coming out of the house and facing the cross currents of those times.
Likewise the surrealism of Tombstone Blues,” though I would say the John the Baptist verse applied equally well to the Bush administration’s policy on interrogation.
The people I admired most in the Sixties were fearlessly willing to confront hypocrisy, phoniness, and thoughtless behavior. Dylan was one of them; “Like A Rolling Stone” exemplifies what I’m talking about.
Some of Dylan’s love lyrics are wickedly witty, especially those in the album “Blonde on Blonde,” but his mastery showed in his ability to evoke many emotional shifts. “Someone Who Has Had You on His Mind,” for example: “When you wake up in the morning, baby, look inside your mirror/ Oh, you will not see me, you know I won’t be near you/I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear/As someone who has had you on his mind.” It was good enough to win Joan Baez, who sings this version:
One of my top 100 songs, “All My Trials,” was done by Baez, as well as many others. It originated in the Bahamas. I remember saying to myself, “It would be worth all the trouble of learning to play a guitar just to do this song.”
Baez did a fine version of “Lowlands” on an early recording, but she learned it from Odetta:
That leads into the next piece. On the album “The Real Bahamas II,” which I happened to run across in a record bin, there was a song that’s well up in my top 100: the Pindar Family’s “Take Me Over the Tide.” I couldn’t locate a YouTube video, but there’s a sample and a chance to buy it at
The trials and tribulations. This is top 100, alas: “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” done here by Odetta:
Blind Blake’s “That Will Never Happen No More” has reminded me that I should include two anthems of female empowerment in this listing: first Enya’s “Sail Away” then Joan Jett and the Blackhearts doing “I Love Rock and Roll.” Women are central, nor subsidiary, as far as I’m concerned.
I haven’t listed much rock-pop music, but some in this group are in my top 100. These are in no particular order.
The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper:
The Beatles, “Things We Said Today:”
Lothar and the Hand People, “Machines,” which includes one of the great rock videos:
The Doors, “People Are Strange.” Personal reasons here: this is how it felt my freshman year in college, raw country kid in the city, scholarship-and-work kid in a college with a lot of rich kids.
The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Coconut Grove.” How the Sixties often felt, later in college, after I met my intended..
Bo Diddley’s version of the lullaby “Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word,” though it might be hard to recognize. A lot of people imitated the rhythm of this after it came out in 1955, but no one did it like Bo.
It’s simply titled “Bo Diddley.”
“Sweet Dreams” by the Eurhythmics. I can’t say much for most of the melody, harmony, and rhythm except that with the words, they form a relentless insistence on the insanity of the world today as seen by the young.
Abba, “Take A Chance On Me,” one of the most compelling rock love songs:
Blondie, “Heart of Glass,” brings back for me the intensity of the era just before AIDS hit, especially in the cities. It’s one of the two rock songs that for me epitomize the urban Seventies. (The Back to the Land movement lived in a different world.)
The other (speaking of female empowerment) is Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”
I couldn’t find my top pick for a back-to-the land song, the Holy Modal Rounders’ “Same Old Man,” which has the lines “Yes, I’m certainly glad to be home;/ New York City can continue on alone.”
The Rounders were psychedelic goofballs, but they knew their stuff when it came to folk music. I couldn’t find top 100 “Bound to Lose,” either—it’s about riverboat gambling, and uses its refrain with terrific effect. They could pen memorable verses to old songs, like one in “The Cuckoo Bird” that effectively uses a two-beat line–which I can testify as a magna cum laude Ivy League English major is very rare: “Sometimes/ I wonder/ What makes women/ Love men./ Then I look back/ And I wonder/ What makes men/ Love them.” Great duo; worth getting a CD.
That last verse has its counterpart in a Muppets number that’s in my top 100. Here are Rowlf the Dog and Kermit the Frog with “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along:”
Back to the Land and back to folk music went together. For all the gardeners out there, I recommend Doc Watson’s version of “Ground Hog.”
It’s worth remember that a lot of the back to the land work was and is done by people who have never left the land but don’t have any of their own and have to keep moving. Woody Guthrie immortalized the Dust Bowl refugees of the 1930s, writing many moving songs, but I don’t think any are better than his 1944 “Pastures of Plenty”—an American “Meadowland” of sorts. If your only knowledge of the Dust Bowl is from a page or so in a high school history book, find a documentary video—those dust storms were astounding. Hitler thought Americans were soft and wouldn’t make good fighters; he wouldn’t have last a week in the Dust Bowl.
One of the best environmental songs is Tom Paxton’s “Garbage,” sung here by Pete Seeger:
John Kenneth Galbraith once said the American system was based on a balance of power between business, labor, and government. The ability to shift jobs overseas without any requirements for worker welfare or environmental safety has come close to destroying organized labor as a countervailing force (Galbraith’s term) and income inequality has soared.
One of the musicians mostly stalwartly pro-labor has been Britain’s Billy Bragg. His “The World Turned Upside Down,’ also known as the Diggers song, is in my top 100. Rarely has electric instrumentation been used more effectively.
The classic labor song is “Which Side On Your On?” Many people have done it, but as far as I know Florence Reece was the first. At the age this was recorded she’s creaky and squeaky, but the determination is ageless.
In the other half of this, I said that Bob Dylan’s “North Country Blues’ was a brilliant portrayal of how a town dies when its main source of work goes away. Another is veteran labor and community organizer Si Kahn’s “Aragon Mill.” This is where you can find him singing it. The Vermont group Woodchuck’s Revenge does a wonderful version, with Kristina Cady’s fiddle adding poignancy to an already powerful song.
I would be remiss in mentioning something British without including something Irish. I’m linking to “The Belle of Belfast City” because of the subtly of the lyrics. Note how in a few words the girl goes from disliking boys to being flirtatious to settling on the one who really cares about her. This is Kirsty MacColl:
In more rural times, it was very important for boys and girls to court and marry and start families. On the surface, “Leatherwing Bat” is just a kids’ nonsense song—but pay attention to the lyrics. Pete Seeger’s version is in my top 100.
Something Scottish, a very old song by the great Ewan MacColl, “The Gardener Chyld.” (Yes, he was Kirsty MacColl’s father.) Unusual melody, with notes more typical of a refrain at the front of each verse. More courting: it’s pitiless tale of a poor boy getting shot down by his lady-love. It opens with her in her father’s doorway holding a switch, and along he comes with a rose—guess who’s dominant here. He gets slamcraggled. I like the melody enough to have written a song to it. Last verse: “Trapped in our time like ants in amber/ We tried to rise above it all/ But in the end took consolation/ There was not that far to fall, for us/ There was not that far to fall.”
Another great tale of woebegone courting, top 100 for me, came from the duo of Carter and Young in 1930: “A Lazy Farmer Boy:”
A last courting song, “Swing and Turn,” by Jean Ritchie backed by Doc Watson, with one of the great refrains. Top 100.
This has gone on long enough, so I’ll close with something ultimate: from the Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life,” “The Galaxy Song:”