Category Archives: Essays

My education, which included graduating from Harvard College magna cum laude in English literature, made me initially resistant to the concept of blogging. I still think the term suggests an emphasis on reactions to current events–more thoughtful than what goes onto Twitter and Facebook, but still part of a contemporary fascination with linked intercommunication. I simply don’t have time to get involved in all that, and as a concomitant, this blog is not linked to any others. I am more interested in putting together enduring prose explorations and accounts, following the inspiration and example of great essayists whose work I have read. Works of literary criticism will go under a separate heading; likewise political commentary, humorous pieces, and personal accounts will be found elsewhere



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:”



For years I have been saying from time to time, “That song is in my top 100,” without ever trying to make a definitive list. When I upgraded my computer this year, I discovered that a fair number of the “videos” on YouTube were actually audio with still pictures to fill the screen while they were playing. Among them were some of my all-time greats.
Most, though no meas all, are from folk music, including world music. Some are there only in memory, technological change having rendered obsolete the methods of recording them. To know folk music is to know heartbreak—there are so many things you’ve heard and cared deeply about that you can’t share.
But some you can, and that is the purpose of this set of YouTube Internet addresses. Of course these, too, will at some point become ethereal, but perhaps not for a while. What follows is not in any definite order, though I have tried to keep things grouped.
For any young writers who might be tune in: I guarantee that if you through the two parts of the compilation, your musical horizons will have expanded, and very possibly other horizons as well.

Robert Johnson

They finally put his picture on a postage stamp, with his cigarette digitally edited out. There aren’t many recordings—he died young, poisoned by a love rival—but those that remain are foundations of the blues. He was said to be able to play anything after hearing it once, but there are passages of his that no one has been able to play better. One of them follows the first line of “Crossroads,” a number that has come to stand for his restless, doomed wanderings.

“Preaching Blues”
Robert Johnson
“Preaching Blues” isn’t about preaching, it’s the ultimate expression of what “the blues” were, and are. Listening to this, I’m amazed that so much intensity could be packed into one person. You probably didn’t know that “blues” could be a six-syllable word; then gain, maybe you never had them long enough.
The song includes some of the best blues lines ever written. “The blues is a low-down aching chill; if you never had them (guitar notes fired like two arrows) I hope you never will.”

That url is part of a series of Robert Johnson videos, some of which have slide shows with them that are worth watching. I’m mentioning that so I don’t have to take up too much of this with his work. But one more:

“Traveling Riverside”

This is as close to putting raging sexual desire into music as anyone is likely to come. The guitar accompaniment to the words is indescribable, except perhaps to say it’s sheer genius.

“Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you round.”

“Lyke-Wake Dirge”
The Young Tradition

Shifting a third of the way around the world, the Lyke-Wake Dirge is the music that plays in my head during the All Hallows-All Saints-Samhain-Walpurgis time of the year. There’s a historical document that indicates it was sung in 1616, but general agreement considers it much older. Sung in an ancient Yorkshire dialect and in an ancient style of harmony (parallel fifths, unaccompanied) by a trio that includes the formidable folk presence Peter Bellamy, it speaks of what happens to a soul after someone dies. Besides confronting the flames of Purgatory on the journey toward Heaven, the spirit must cross Whin Moor, an upland area that is home to shrubs with sharp thorns (whins). “If hosen or shoon thou gavest ain/ Then sit ye doon and put them on…/But if hosen or shoon thou gavest nain/ The Whinny will prick thee to thy bare bane…” The Bible: “If you refuse those in need, you refuse me.” The LykeWake Dirge isn’t “spooky” as some kind of costumed fun, it’s in tune with the nature of that time of year, when the leaves and the light fall together and the cold and wind join forces and strengthen. Skip the Halloween parade, read the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native,” then listen to this.

Halloween idea: leave the lights off and some windows open and crank up an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo player. This recording includes a very good slideshow tour of the Oceanic continent.

Another great evocation of that season is the opening of “Witch’s Hat,” by the Incredible String Band, another British group. I was fortunate enough to see them twice in the Sixties; I believe they were every bit as creative as the Beatles, in unique ways. I am including this piece in my Top 100 because it is the single best music evocation of childhood of childhood that I know (though in that regard I would also point to Debussy’s “Children’s Corner Suite”). There is a chord here that I have never encountered anywhere else. YouTube has a compilation of 97 videos titled “Top Tracks for the Incredible String Band” if you want to delve further.

Another very old song, dating to the 11th century, is sung in Catholic churches at Easter. I first heard “Victimae Paschali Laudes” in a college course on the history of music, which means it was included as classical music, but it’s such a pure expression of absolute faith that I associate it equally with the more emotional folk tradition. “Tell us, Mary what did you see on the road?” But the Latin is far more poetic.

Thinking of the Sixties, I also saw John Fahey twice. Exhibiting less guitar wizardry that the better-known Leo Kottke, another guitarist who learned well from bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, Fahey was a better composer. His “Great San Bernardino Birthday Party, a long instrumental piece I have so far been unable to find on You Tube, is to my mind the best single evocation of the spirit of the Sixties. Its opening and closing served as the processional and recessional at my wedding in 1971.
But there is another of his pieces I’m putting here, which bears the fanciful and completely non-descriptive title “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain.” I heard it first at one of his concerts. He took out a guitar he said was made of a particularly resonant kind of Hawaiian wood and started doing “bottleneck” slide guitar playing, and I went into some kind of trance state. Literally I did not know left from right, forward from backward, up from down. I was not hearing the music, it was going up and down my spine.
There was a musicological reason for this, I was to learn later. The Western musical scale has been “tempered,” its pitches slightly altered from what they would be if they followed the actual vibrational pitches, so thenotes can harmonize over a wide range. (When my son was one year old he toddled over to the piano and started using the fingers of both hands to play octaves—historically the first kind of harmony to appear in the history of Western music.) The piano wouldn’t have its 88 keys without tempering. Musical traditions that emphasize melody rather than harmony, notably Indian classical music, regularly employ tones that Western musicians touch on by “bending” notes. Or, as black musicians did in the 20th century, by using guitar slides. I was hearing and responding to a massive influx of those missing notes.

Man cultures use a mouth bow or mouth harp of some sort to access interesting twangy tones. This is in a set of 70 videos, from many countries, featuring what we call the Jew’s harp or jaw harp. Olga Prass is performing at the 7th International Jew’s Harp Congress Festival in Yakutsk in Siberia in 2011.

Fahey is the link to another Top 100 performance: Big Boy Cleveland’s (title created by others later) “Quill Blues,” because Fahey included it in something he put together using the piece, the sound of a “singing bridge” near Memphis, Tennessee, and some of his own playing.
Cleveland improvises this in 1926 on a very primitive pipe made of a feather quill. The range of his notes, their accuracy, and the pattern they form are phenomenal. I wish I knew more about the man behind the music.

Perhaps it wasn’t an accident that Fahey used a bridge near Memphis, whose Beale Street was in the 1920s the kind of freewheeling place that Greenwich Village in New York City was during the folk revival. Charlie Poole of the legendary string band
Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers sang at the time about Beale Street “I’d rather be there/Than any place I know…And it’s going to take a sergeant (of the police)/For to make me go.”
More from Charlie Poole later. Here I’m including something I think could only have been recorded on Beale Street because in that era of the Jim Crow South, what’s said in one verse could get a black man lynched. Papa Harvey Hull is singing—he used a fake name for the record label—backed by Long Cleve Reed, one of the best of Beale Street’s musicians. You can hear Reed feeling around for the best accompaniment then coming up with something unforgettable.
The verse that gives “France Blues” its name is buried among others about death and mourning that are moving in and of themselves, but then comes the one about France, like Mohammed Ali’s “phantom punch” that knocked down Sonny Liston.
During World War One, black soldiers on leave in Paris found that the French prostitutes had no prejudices against black men. You won’t read about this in histories of the civil right movement, but it was a breakthrough. On a personal note, this was one of two pieces played on my college radio station’s folk show that swung me to folk music (the other, Penny’s Farm, will come later.

More typical of the black experience in those years is one of the most heartbreaking songs I know. Given the title “Poor Boy,” it is played and sung in prison, musician unknown; it is about a man having to tell his mother he is penitentiary bound. Alan Lomax recorded it in 1939.

Another of the great witness sons from the pre-World-War-Two era is Son House’s depiction of the Southern injustice system “County Farm Blues.” I’m amazed that he dared to record it. The song is a night haunted by the whites of the eyes of terrified blacks.

Alan Lomax recorded the work songs that prison chain gangs used to work in rhythm and to keep up their energy. You can hear the fatigue and energy in this field recording, along with the kind of thoughts about women that men in prison are likely to have.

One of the best representations of those work songs comes from the Georgia Sea Islanders, who until the construction of a bridge linking them with the mainland kept alive black traditions that had vanished elsewhere. Here their leader Bessie Jones, one of the truly great female singers, performs some of the most telling of the work song verses, which she heard growing up in Georgia in the 19-teens, as “Sink ‘Em Low:”

I haven’t been able to find my favorite work song, a gang of gandy dancers, as they were known, putting down railroad tracks and driving spikes to secure them to the ties—giving the words the title “Lining Track. The white boss didn’t know the meaning hidden in the words: ”If I could, surely would/ Stand on the rock where Moses stood/ (Hey boys, won’t you line it?/ Ho boys, won’t you line it?/ Hey boys won/t you line it?/ Well-a we’s-a-go linin’ track.) Moses stood on the Red Sea shore/ SMOTE that water with a two-by-four..”
The escape of the Hebrews from slavery. I once saw a sixth grade singing book with “Lining Track” in it, but they had rendered the refrain as “See Eloise go lining track,” missing completely the poetry in the actual work song’s contraction.
The legend of John Henry took off from the prowess of those railroad-building sledgehammer men. There are many versions, but the one I’ve listened to again and again for its unique driving power was done in 1944 by the supersession unit of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Leadbelly.

There are so many unknown work gang songleaders and fine but lesser-known bluesmen. I have no idea who did the unaccompanied solo “Niggers ain’t got no justice in Atlanta, and I don’t know where you could hear it. The only reason I know about it is a10-watt MIT student radio station program in the 1970s “Country Blues and Politics” (which I was able to record 40 miles away because I had an antenna an engineer friend had given me) that featured field recordings by Delta X (Stephen Michelson), himself a wizard blues player.
You have to imagine a man in a recliner chair with his young son, so young he can lie on the man’s chest, singing in as deep a voice as he can
“Well if you go to Atlanta boys you better walk right
Down in Atlanta
Well if you go to Atlanta boys you better walk right
Down in Atlanta town
Well if you go to Atlanta boys you better walk right
Well you better not gamble and you better not fight
Niggers ain’t got no justice in Atlanta
And on for six more verses.
The only kid in Vermont, maybe ever, to have that as a lullaby. In high school he played trombone and bass horn; in his rock band, the electric bass.

White sharecroppers had a hard time of it in the Deep South, too. This is by a 1920s group called the Bently Boys, about whom almost nothing is known. Musically, it’s extremely simple: except for two notes, it can be played in the key of C, but it’s in the key of A+ for storytelling.

The vile part of Southern history can’t take away the heritage of their great string bands, as these acoustic units are now known. Maybe the best-known is Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. They did a lot of things that continue to inspire folk musicians, but I thought I’d specifically point to “He Rambled.” (Their version of the ballad of Frankie and Johnny “Leaving Home” was part of those college AM radio folk program broadcasts that convinced me of the genre’s value.) If you listen to a collection of the Ramblers’ work, you may end by feeling as I do that the mindset of rural America in those days was in many ways kinder and gentler than today’s. Who would write a song now about someone waiting for a letter that never comes? Who would craft a song about a girl’s habit of chewing gum and leaving wads of it around that ends with the revelation that the singer is talking about his wife? My late father grew up on a small farm in northwestern Pennsylvania in the late 1920s—the song I’ve linked to was recorded in 1929–and always insisted that their neighbors had been the friendliest, most helpful folk he had ever known. Listening to Charlie Poole, I’m inclined to believe him.

This is a Charlie Poole railroad song, “Bill Mason.” The ending is superb: “He came around the curve a-flyin’/ ‘Bill Mason’s on time tonight,’” and the rest is left to your imagination.

Another musical plus for the South was its preservation of shape note singing, which is now widely known and actively practiced her in Vermont. It originated with professionally trained musicians who wanted to make four-part harmony singing accessible to people who could not read music. They devised a system in which each note (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) was represented by a different shape. Once singers learned to associate the shapes with the notes, they could sing a wide variety of songs—and they continue to do so, sometimes at all-day gatherings. There is a famous shape note hymnal called “The Sacred Harp” which is still used today, to the extent that the music is sometimes called Sacred Harp singing. I’m posting here links to two of my favorites among these fierce, full-throated performances, of the hymns “Rocky Road” and “Wondrous Love.”

I said “fierce” and I meant it. “Babylon” would do as well for a battlefield marching song as a church hymn. To illustrate the popularity of this sort of choral singing, I’ve posted a link to a video from Cork in Ireland.

I don’t want to leave the subject of martial music without including “Meadowland,” a song that rallied patriotic love of Russia during World War Two. Appropriately, it’s done here by the Red Army Ensemble in 1965.. For more of what the Nazis (and Napoleon and the Teutonic Knights) ran into in Russia, listen to the Montagues and Capulets section of Prokofiev’s music for the ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”

When it comes to choral performance, I would be remiss in not mentioning Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group came from Laydsmith in South Africa, the black ox was the strongest farm animal, and “mambazo” has to do with chopping down—which they did so successfully to their opposition in singing competitions that they were excluded from them. Paul Simon included them on “Graceland” and they took off from there.
Founder Joseph Shambalala said when he retired in 2006, “In the early 1960s I had a dream of a type of singing group that I wanted to create. Not just a dream, in the wishful way, but an actual dream while I was asleep. This beautiful dream led to the creation of my group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now, some forty-five-plus years later this original dream has led to so many more dreams. We have been awarded Grammy Awards, represented our homeland of South Africa at many prestigious events, including accompanying Nelson Mandela to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, traveled the world so many times and most importantly, spread a message of Peace, Love and Harmony to millions of people.
This was never a dream a black South African could ever imagine.”
This is their performance of “Homeless” at the Nobel Prize award ceremony:

Regarding harmonization: “Winken and Blinken and Nod,” recorded by sisters Carly and Lucy Simon, is about as close to perfection as harmony singing can get. It was a top 10 hit in San Francisco in 1964. For me, one of the precious qualities of the Sixties was vulnerability, and the audacity of thinking that a nursery rhyme was worth turning into song lyrics exemplifies it.

Family singing like the above can bring a unique kind of unity to a performance. One of the best groups in this regard was the Carter Family. “Single Girl, Married Girl” is one of most truth-telling, heart-breaking songs I know. It’s also an illustration of something a lot of 21st century recording artists seem to have forgotten: the power of simplicity.

Anyone who knows anything about folk music knows Doc Watson, who hailed from Deep Gap, North Carolina. To begin with, he was a phenomenal guitar player. He came to Rutland, Vermont once and I took my one-year-old son to hear him. The boy was too restless to stay, but he was impressed. The next day he summed it up in two words: “Dekatar—FAST!”
Watson has also been a wonderful wordsmith. His version of the old English ballad “Matty Groves” conveys his ability to put together verses of an oft-told story in the most effective way and phrase things memorably. “Matty Groves” is a tragic love story, set in motion when Lord Daniel’s page boy overhears his master’s wife’s lover telling a companion that he will be with her that night, when Lord Daniel is away. The boy decides that his master should know about this “before I go to bed.” He’s only a child, he’s thinking about his bedtime—the characterization, in just a few words, is perfect. The way he tells Lord Daniel what is happening—“Matty Groves is in the bed with your wife/and their hearts both beat as one”—could not be bettered. And so on. For those who want to look it up, Doc Watson also did a comic hillbilly version of the Eternal Triangle story called “Everyday Dirt” that likewise has some wonderful lines in it.

“Warm and Windy” is an example of Doc Watson’s note-perfect, dynamically perfect, ideal-tempo playing. The video focuses on his fingering—it’s a guitar lesson. Go ahead and try to do it as well. Remember, you’re watching how he does it, but he’s blind.

Dave Van Ronk was another folk musician with the ability to take an old song and craft verses that give it life—in his case, enduring life. “Duncan and Brady,” the story of a mean cop getting paid back, has one of folk music’s most memorable refrains: “Well, he been on the job too long.” Notice how the guitar accompaniment ends one section then immediately poises the song to begin another.

Creating new and better ways of telling old stories is itself an old story, going back to Homer’s version of Greek war stories in the “lliad” and “Odyssey” and before. The Bible furnishes the material for one of Van Ronk’s finest, “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.”
It’s done slowly, with an exquisite guitar patterns that repeat and create a unique space in time inside which the story unfolds.
And there is a moment that says worlds about the spirit of the 1960s. Van Ronk, with his voice set to spring to the next words, gives a little yip. It’s the spirit of pure joy, built up to a point where it can’t be contained and bursts out. It’s one of those instantaneous moments, like the one in Ozu’s film “Tokyo Story” when the bus flashes past in the other direction, that carry feelings and meanings beyond any words.

There was time in the Sixties for songs that took their time. One of the best, from the Jefferson Airplane in 1967, “Coming Back to Me,” is completely at variance with people’s images of rock bands (Jerry Garcia interview at that time: “I like to play loud”) and is a wonderful love song.

Another quiet song, from Stephen Stills in 1970—“Four and Twenty.” Generation X, Y, Z—you’re far from alone is feeling the pain of growing up with marital strife.

Continuing with songs that take their time, here’s one of my favorites from one of Bob Dylan’s early albums—“In My Time Of Dyin’.” Had he chosen to be simply a folk musician, I think he still would have achieved greatness. The people who saw him in little folk clubs were lucky.

About the same time there was another impressive rendition of a song on the same subject, by Pat Sky, whose first album to the best of my knowledge didn’t cross over to CD: “You’re Going to Need Somebody On Your Bond.”

While I’m on the subject of death: when Ralph Stanley’s performance of “O Death” became famous because of its appearance in the movie “Brother, Where Art Thou?” I tried listening to it and couldn’t get all the way through because I knew the version done by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Islanders, which is driven by deep faith:

Dylan, whose work could take up a lot of space in this compilation, showed early on that he was indeed following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie by writing memorable songs. “North Country Blues” is the best song I know about how foreign competition has destroyed many American working-class towns. The concluding line is poetic ambiguity at its best: there’s nothing left in HER either.

The iconic Jefferson Airplane song is “White Rabbit,” from the early days of people experimenting with taking LSD. Whatever you think of doing that, there is no mistaking the courage of the first explorers, which comes through in this performance, especially through the look in singer Grace Slick’s eyes. It was a generation in which many of those whose parents survived artillery fire went through explosions of a different kind when they launched into the new frontier of “inner space.” For the record, I never took LSD, not because I was against it but because I did not think I was psychologically stable enough to handle it. A fair number of those who did went on to spiritual traditions that involve meditation and experiences of enlightenment. I went to Zen meditation and concomitant experiences without being pushed in that direction by hallucinogenic drugs. There was one time, during a period when I was meditating very intensively, when in a dream my mind set itself the challenge of producing the same kind of cascade of visual images that people had reported happening during “trips.” As many, many people insisted: it isn’t the drug that creates the experience, it’s the (mind)”set and setting.” Anyone who is seriously thinking of taking LSD should get a copy of Lisa Bieberman’s manual “Session Games People Play,” which suggests wise guidelines that were widely ignored during the teenybopper phase of the LSD craze. (It’s still online as of 2013 at The imagery in “White Rabbit” comes from Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice in Wonderland,” read by children and adults alike.

Memories of the Sixties: in the evening, the president of the co-operative house where I Iived in college would climb out through the window of his room with his banjo and sit on the roof of the entrance to the three-story wood-frame house and sing the Phil Ochs song “Crucifixion.” It was riveting: people walking along the street would stop to listen and people who lived along the street would come to hear it. Fit THAT into your stereotypes.

Yes, there were drugs. Yes, I inhaled. Jamie Brockett’s “Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic” isn’t played over the air because it’s flagrantly politically incorrect, but the part where the captain goes walking around the wheelhouse is the best re-creation I know of what it felt like to have marijuana take effect.

The right wing had done its best to demonize the Sixties as a time of rampant personal selfishness, ignoring all the experiments with communal living and, more sustainably, all the arts and crafts and social service groups that were founded then and are still doing good work. I remember that one of them, Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) became so good at community organizing as part of their ant-poverty efforts that Nixon, seeing a political threat, gutted the program.
In the area of folk music, there were musicians who went into the South and looked in the dusty bins of bypassed stores to find the “race records,” the music put out by recording companies under special labels that appealed to the “Negro” market. Then they listened to those records. On some, there was information that helped them find the people who were recorded, some of whom were still playing.
Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon’s my home town, always on my mind.” They went to Avalon, Mississippi and found him. They brought him out of retirement to record more songs and appear at folk festivals, and to inspire guitar players for decades to come. Listening to those old records, some of them asked, “But who’s the other guitar player? There was no other guitar player—those old-tike black bluesmen were just that good.
Here’s the original “Avalon Blues.” If you like it, thank the Sixties.

Walter “Furry” Lewis, 1893-1981, was another great bluesman brought to fame by the so-called Blues Mafia. “Kassie Jones,” the name of the song changed from Casey Jones to avoid copyright problems, is one of the many old-time songs that talks about the railroad. Listen to the absolutely regular beat of this song, for which I believe the steam engine, the most powerful machine of those times, provided a model–teaching the lesson that steadiness empowers. On top of this the lyrics, in non-standard English but in poetically adept phrases, stand out as the figure against the regular accompaniment’s ground. Robert Frost theorized and wrote in a style that interplayed the variations of sentence structure and background meters. At about the same time, the great blues artists worked with similarly interconnected patterns.

Of course this doesn’t just happen in American music. In 1972, “The Harder They Come” introduced Jamaican reggae to the general public, a film with one of the best soundtracks ever. Among the classics there was “Rivers of Babylon,” a Biblical psalm set to music by the Melodians.
Truly to hear this, you should either listen on headphones or have a music system with excellent stereo separation. In the “song of freedom” section, two voices divide, singing the same lyrics differently, then for the words “We’ve got to sing it together” they unite, in a way that makes the words resound.

Getting back to the blues, another “home town” song was Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” (it’s in Georgia).

Some of my Top 100 are performances. I don’t think it’s likely that I will find anything as intense as Johnny Cash recording at Folsom prison and starting with “Folsom Prison Blues.” When the voices of these men doing hard time rise at the words “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” you know you’re in a different world entirely. This is a link to the entire album, but it starts with the song to which I’m pointing.

Watch the movie “Monterey Pop”—that festival’s music, on 1967, was better than Woodstock’s. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding will show what I mean.

Jimi Hendrix was to the Sixties as Robert Johnson was a generation earlier: a natural-born musician and phenomenal guitarist and performer. I think he was at his peak when, at Woodstock in 1969, he changed forever many people’s image of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When the people promoting World Cup soccer the year it was based in this country did a video announcing it, they used the first six notes as the introduction. There is a right way to blow a train whistle approaching a crossing, there is a right way to play Taps (which Hendrix incorporates into the National Anthem, an even more telling anti-war statement than the piece’s re-creation of “bombs bursting in mid-air”), and there is a right way to do the notes of “Oh, say, can you see;” you know it when you hear it, and at Woodstock a half million people heard it.

Some of my top songs are there because of the words more than the performance, though I have tried to put outstanding versions here.

There are many dire plaints about coal-mining, but none better than Peggy Seeger’s account of a collapse in Springhill, Nova Scotia “Springhill Mining Disaster,” done here by Martin Carthy. The last two lines are among the best conclusions in all folk music.

Disasters: when it was announced that the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun, British celebrity Lady Astor called the British soldiers in Italy “D-Day Dodgers.” In fact the Eighth Army (and their American counterparts) had fought a brutal campaign in the mountainous terrain against highly effective German troops. One of those British soldiers wrote a song in response, using the melody of Lily Marlene,” the favorite song of ordinary soldiers on both sides in the European war. The outrage in “D-Day Dodgers” is quiet and understated for the most part, but the climactic line is a knife-thrust, with a degree of sexual innuendo that makes it one of the most effectively vitriolic lines in folk music.

As a prelude, read the World War Two correspondent Ernie Pyle’s account of fighting in Italy here:

The song:

For comic relief, I’ll turn to MIT math professor, student of musical theater, and songwriting genius Tom Lehrer. He wrote and performed a lot (please pardon the non-quantitative terminology, Tom) of wonderful things, but in honor of the recent selection of a new Pope (as of March 2013) here’s the “Vatican Rag;”

Some of the best-written lyrics in recent decades have come from Lou and Peter Berryman. The refrain in “Squalor” is as good as it gets.

Among the best-written of the old-time songs was picked up by Patrick Sky, “The Devil and the Farmer’s Wife.” Note the attention to detail: “Off to Hell he went, clickety-clack”—cloven hoofs. And the way things are phrased: “I’ve been a devil most all my life/ But I never knew Hell till I met your wife.”

I’m going to close part one here because my computer is telling me the word-processing file is getting so large it’s causing problems. I hope not for you.



Debate over who might be experienced enough to become President take for granted what “experience” means. Unfortunately, only a minority of the voters have had the experience of going to a liberal arts college where the professors would have flunked such superficiality.
History teaches that simply following the patterns of the past is likely to lead a nation astray as often as not. Psychology insists that someone who finds it difficult to learn from the experiences of others risks neurosis—that is, repetition of the same behavior regardless of whether or not it succeeds in what it seeks. Physics reminds us that entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, describes a universe in which things move from greater to lesser organization (ashes do not become firewood, for instance—which carries with it the corollary that any closed system will deteriorate. Biology points to evolution as the way life has increased in its organization and complexity: that is, the constant creation of new characteristics, some of which will eventually be keys to surviving a changing environment.
If the events of someone’s past reinforce certain beliefs and perceptions to the exclusion of others, that person can appear stable and strong and consistent—projecting the assurance that the comforting belief system provides. But as any builder can tell you, rigidity is not strength. Nor is inflexibility the same as acting according to principle. How many, many times someone is “born again” upon reaching the depths of dysfunction and despair—whereupon the convert, whose rejection of ambiguity and exploration and continual development has left a very happy sub-personality, goes about telling others who never wandered into such straits that THEY know better.
Yes, we are engaged in a long, long conflict, and have been for centuries. The enemy is not Islam; it is fundamentalism.
The late, great Norbert Wiener, an MIT genius who helped pioneer the “cybernetics” that in turn made possible the computer revolution, felt compelled to write a book of social observations titled “The Human Use of Human Beings.” At one point in his discourse, nearly a half century ago, he delivered a kind of parable about learning and vulnerability and growth that bears on our choices in 2008.
Why is it, he asked, that insect societies like those of ants and bees have never turned into civilizations, but those of apes have done so? The answer, he said, lies in a primeval fork in the road where evolving organisms had to go one way or another: whether to have an exoskeleton or an endoskeleton.
You know what an exoskeleton is. It’s the suit of armor that bugs wear, and which looks almost like a bug when it falls from the spider’s web, sucked dry. Under many circumstances, a toughened exterior can protect; under others, it will fail. (I think of the old argument during World War II between infantry soldiers and tank men: “You wouldn’t catch me in a big target like that!” versus “I’d never go walking along where I could get shot at any moment!”) I have never driven a car with airbags, but have had five times when someone else’s car was coming at my four- or three-cylinder tuk-tuk in my lane, and so far have always been able to dodge (no bets on the next time). And so on.
Where the bugs lost out, Wiener said, was in having to metamorphose to reach mature size. Think of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly: nothing the caterpillar might have learned could survive such a transformation, and thus there has been no reinforcement for higher learning ability in caterpillars. Humans, on the other hand, gradually change size and shape, and the adult form is recognizable even in the womb (which may superficially resemble an egg, but is a far more environmentally oriented place). What is learned adds up, and as scientists say, the answer to one question leads to others. Don’t underestimate the foundation this creates; generally, a three-year-old has a better command of his or her native language than an adult foreigner who has studied it twice that long.
Paradoxically, in the long crawl-creep-run vulnerability proved stronger than toughness. Turning to this election, we have a choice between the cult of the Warrior—a belief that armed conflict is the greatest danger our nation faces, and should be our highest priority, whatever the cost—and a style of leadership emphasizing negotiation, cooperation, and (although the word will never appear in speeches) context.
For those of us who believe the greatest threat to humanity is too much humanity doing too many outdated things, the choice seems clear. But even without the likelihood of environmental catastrophe (future centuries will look at the extinctions of species, cultures and languages and say it already HAS been a catastrophe), do we really want to be riding into the World Wide Web in a Tank of State while our economic strength is slowly but surely drained away?



The Chimney Point State Historic Site in Addison annually hosts an atlatl competition, often including workshops where people can learn about them. In other words, people will engage in a Stone Age activity next to the steel-and-concrete bridge that spans Lake Champlain.
So, what’s an atlatl, something from Mad Magazine? No, that’s the axolotl, a lizard of the high mountain lakes in Mexico, found in the territory the Nahuatl once ruled, hence the –tl ending. An atlatl, also from the Nahuatl, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a device for throwing a spear or dart that consists of a rod or board with a projection (as a hook) at the rear end to hold the weapon in place until released.”
In other words, the atlatl is a way of throwing a sharp-pointed, spearlike object as if your arm were longer, giving you more range. It takes practice to master the sweeping motion needed to send the projectile accurately, but in its day this was a formidable hunting implement.
One of my fascinations has been the way similar extensions of human strength were developed all over the world during the earliest ages of human society, in so many different ways. South American had the bolo, three weights on three ropes connected at the middle so that when thrown whirling at an ostrich’s legs, it would tangle them up. American tribes sometimes used the rabbit stick, a simple length of wood thrown parallel with and just above the ground, so that its faster outer whirling part would knock out a small animal looking over the grass. The spear used the mass and momentum of its heavy length to drive home the relatively crude stone points of the Neolithic. Some jungle tribes used the blow tube, after they learned how poisonous some things around them were, meaning that a small wound from a small dart could be made fatal. Various snares and possibly devices similar to the Malaysian Gate (ask a Vietnam veteran) took on added force from the controlled release of bent vegetation. The Middle East had the sling, swung in a circle to throw a rock with increased speed and terrific effect, as gigantic Goliath discovered when confronting the Hebrew shepherd boy David. The bow and arrow were so effective that the invention diffused widely, or occurred independently in many places. Top prize ought to go to Australia’s aboriginals, whose boomerangs, aerodynamically shaped rabbit sticks, would circle back to the thrower if they missed their target—thus utilizing the basic principle behind flight long before people could ever take off from the ground themselves.
So began our long history of warfare, with war against other animals.
To complete the prehistoric picture, one more invention needs to be recognized: rope. Maybe the idea came from women’s invention of thread, as a way of putting together garments and shelters. Maybe observation of vines and their twisted and twisting growth habits gave someone the idea. Maybe unkempt hair, which tends to clump naturally into coils like the Rastafarians’ “dreadlocks.” In any case, people were soon twisting flexible materials into better and better cordage, which had all sorts of uses (the bow, a musical instrument as well as a weapon, depended on such an invention).
It was rope that enabled one group of people to make captives of some other group, rather than having to kill them. It was the kind of rope known as a whip that make such captives slaves. And “civilization,” like it or not, was born of enslavements, just as our modern civilization began with the arrival of machinery.