Three Great Shane MacGowan Songs

With all that’s going on in the world, it might be argued that not too much notice needs to be taken of the long-anticipated death of a (formerly) alcoholic pop musician at the age of 65. Does it really matter? Well, yes, I think; to the civilized, or what remains of them, everything matters, by definition—at least everything that’s good, for which we rightly give thanks. And, rascal though he was, Shane MacGowan had the gift of a great talent, which he sometimes used very well indeed. In particular, he had the ability and willingness to turn his songwriting voice to subjects most prefer to avoid, or just couldn’t write about, and to characters generally despised, and in so doing to lift them up.

So here are three of what we at Cinch HQ consider to be his greatest songs.

“The Old Main Drag,” from 1985’s peerless Pogues album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, is, to me at least, the seminal Shane MacGowan song, delivering an unflinching series of vignettes of life on the street in London.

When I first came to London I was only sixteen
With a fiver in my pocket and my ole dancing bag
I went down to the dilly to check out the scene
But I soon ended up upon the old main drag

There the he-males and the she-males paraded in style
And the old men with the money would flash you a smile
In the dark of an alley you would work for a five
For a swift one off the wrist down on the old main drag

It’s safe to say no-one had ever heard a traditional Irish-type tune with lyrics like this. It told you where Shane was coming from, and introduced his unique talent to those who were listening in a brutally brilliant fashion.

The song continues, bereft of redemptive relief, right down to the final verse.

And now I am lying here, I have had too much booze
I’ve been shat on and spat on and raped and abused
I know that I am dying and I wish I could beg
For some money to take me from the old main drag

And there you are left.

Not without an element of redemption is the best known and most widely loved song of Shane MacGowan’s, namely “Fairytale of New York,” from the great Pogues album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. The song took a number of years to arrive at its rather miraculous finished state and was released as a Christmas single in 1987, with British songstress Kirsty MacColl singing the feminine half of the duet. It’s no small tribute to Shane’s canniness and taste that he held off on releasing the song until they were able to make exactly the right record of it. And what a record.

The song flashes back and forth in time, painting a picture of a couple who get off the boat from Ireland and are entranced by New York City, at once so large and confounding and yet strangely homey and familiar, and they are there with their big dreams and young love. But whatever gambles they make in life all seem to lose, leading to the middle part of the song in what we might assume is their middle age, if not later:

(She) You’re a bum
You’re a punk
(He) You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
(She) You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

“Fairytale of New York” has become a Yuletide perennial, and those lyrics have caused progressively more fits of conniption from the guardians of political correctness on the airwaves (especially in Britain). It can only be said that anyone who censors the original words is a philistine fit only to be despised to the grave. It is the very honest harshness of these lines that makes the soft sort of reconciliation that creeps in at the end so poignant. It’s not a Christmas song for the super-happy-fun-people: that is for sure. It’s a song for the rest of us losers who still end up believing in something, despite the rocky road we’ve journeyed and the fractured bones we’ve collected on the way.

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing Galway Bay
And the bells are ringing out
For Christmas day

It’s impossible to really define what the song is about—this four minute pop tune—and I think it can take you somewhere different every time you hear it. That’s why it doesn’t get old; that and the gorgeous marriage of rhythm and melody that adorn it. Arriving at the point in time that it did, with compact discs coming in, maybe it qualifies as the last truly great and genuine 45 rpm record. (It would get this writer’s vote.)

After his fellow Pogues could no longer handle his lifestyle, Shane succeeded in putting out two worthy albums under his own name, accompanied by a combo he called the Popes. The second of these records, The Crock of Gold, features a song titled “St. John of God,” which is the name of a well known mental hospital in the Dublin area. The opening lines are among Shane’s greatest.

See the man, the crushed up man
With a crushed up Carroll’s packet in his hand
Doesn’t seem to see or care or even understand
And all he says is eff yez all
Eff yez all, eff yez all

Carroll’s was (and I guess still is) the quintessential Irish brand of cigarettes. “Eff”, as an expression, might warrant a little explaining to the world in the 21st century. You’d be most likely to encounter it, again, in good Catholic Ireland (at least in my day when I lived there), along with its allied euphemism, “Feck.” It originated not only to spare proper ears from the genuine curse with the “uck” ending, but to avoid the venial sin (necessary to confess to the priest on a Saturday evening) of using an official swear word. So you could say “eff” or “feck” and people knew what you meant, but you hadn’t actually committed the sin. The priests themselves probably emitted more effs and fecks than anyone. It’s a nice racket. (Or was, while it lasted.)

We would assume that this mentally ill man of the street whose portrait Shane paints so pithily has been in fights and suffered unspeakable degradation, and yet something still holds him back from saying that full nasty F word, although he means it, as directed to his persecutors and to the whole world.

And then here he is again, drunk or drugged out of his mind, apparently hugging a statue or a crucifix in a church until the police come to enforce some law or another.

The coppers came
Dragged him away from his crucified Lord
Beat him up in a meat wagon
And they stood him up in court
And all he had to say was
Eff yez all, eff yez all

The defiance of this broken man means nothing, and it means everything. Shane memorializes it. No one else could.

Somewhat like the character in that last song, Shane MacGowan did not take very good care of himself, and had less and less to say in his later years. Just about one year ago, Bob Dylan played a concert in Dublin and gave a call out to Shane, invoking the song “Fairytale in New York” and wishing that Shane would make more records. No one who knew Shane’s condition would have thought that very realistic, but then, there’s no harm in asking.

For all that in a perfect world he might have done much more, Shane MacGowan’s greatest songs will not soon be forgotten. His life was a gift, and for it we here give thanks.

We Need To Get Fred Astaire Back

Does the world seem to you, as it does to me, to be more than just a little off-kilter these days? The air is filled with histrionics, people’s heads are bouncing from one extreme to another, there are nagging portents of disaster (every time the latest disaster finishes); there is a sense that the guide rails of life have disintegrated, and violence seems to lurk in every shadow. And those are just the better days, when you can see straight. It has seemed to me for the past several years now that God has had His foot heavily on the gas pedal of history, and most of us are without seatbelts.

We sure could use some steady heads: some calm, understated, competent, and genuinely decent people to look to for their example and leadership. And I don’t mean anybody second rate. These times demand the best.

For some reason this came to my benighted mind when I was watching clips of the actor/dancer/singer Fred Astaire on the Dick Cavett show. I’ll try to explain.

There are multiple clips on YouTube of Fred Astaire being interviewed by Dick Cavett, and also performing some songs. The one I’m embedding below particularly struck me. He’s sitting in the interviewee’s chair beside Cavett, and at the point where this starts, the name of Cole Porter has come up, and—as if spontaneously, but certainly not—Fred sings the Porter song “Miss Otis Regrets,” followed by “Night and Day.” Without getting up from his chair, mind you: without going over to stand near the pianist and the rest of the band (as he does on other occasions). It may be watched and enjoyed in the clip right here, beginning at about the 2:55 mark:

For me, it truly calms the soul to watch and listen as Astaire seems to just off-handedly knock out those tunes with such grace and excellence. To do it without leaving his chair makes it seem spontaneous, but it has to be significantly harder to perform with perfect timing when the musicians are at a distance like that. And that’s the theme with Fred Astaire, throughout his incredible career (the twilight of which he was in here): making very difficult things look effortless. Astaire was known for rehearsing to a punishing degree when it came to his dancing, doing take after take of all those famous routines, so that when the audience finally saw it they saw only perfection: a man floating in poetic rhythm without a hint of strain. He could deal with the aches and pains later. There’s no question he rehearsed his songs too, and he certainly rehearsed for these performances on Cavett’s show. He would not do anything sloppily. But the aim of the rehearsal was to deliver in the end to the audience a little bit of pure magic, a seemingly casual rendition of these timeless tunes by one of the great interpreters of popular song. Famously, those great songwriters like Gershwin and Berlin loved it when Fred Astaire would be the singer to debut one of their songs; they thought he just sang them right, the weak pipes notwithstanding (and not-grandstanding either).

Listen to him being interviewed, too, and the charm and grace is there again, but without a trace of glitz. For a man who had seen so much and knew so much, and could say so much, he is utterly unassuming, even shy, with a kind and generous word for everyone. The jokes are self-effacing ones. He’s a gentleman, but one who makes everyone feel more gentle and at ease. He surely makes an all-but-ideal role model, personifying dedication, excellence, good humor and good will towards his fellow man and woman. If only he were around today, it’s impossible to imagine things would be as bad as they are. Not in a world with Fred Astaire.

So, Q.E.D.—we need to get him back. I don’t know if he should be made president or king, but making him the latter would eliminate a lot of complications. And here’s the thing: We have the technology now. With advanced biotech, AI and those new semiconductors, it can certainly be done (and all with renewable energy, I’d bet). There has to be a hairbrush with some of his DNA on it—though admittedly he didn’t have a lot of actual DNA on his head—kept by someone as a memento. There must be something. This is a project that simply has to be pursued, and I’ll post the GoFundMe link first thing tomorrow morning.

As for Dick Cavett, we don’t need to get him back, because he’s still here (at the time of writing). I don’t count myself as one of the biggest fans of his style, but you have to hand it to him: He was there, he seized his moment, and he got interviews with many of the greats who otherwise did not seem to risk such exposure on the small screen. In part, he must have communicated a certain level of safety and comfort, although once or twice he did get under someone’s skin (just ask Lester Maddox, or, um, Randy Newman). If I’m not mistaken, it’s Cavett himself essentially curating the material on the relevant YouTube channel, so now he gets to revive those glory days and profit anew from them.

In any case, all of the Astaire stuff is well worth watching, because—well, I think that’s been covered.

And, while we await his return, there’s likely enough time to watch all his movies again too. Maybe life ain’t so bad after all.

Tony Made It Happen

This writer’s gratitude for the life of Tony Bennett is directly related to what was his single-minded mission, artistically speaking, and that was to spread the love of the kind of music he loved to sing, that which we call The Great American Songbook; the songs of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, and a great band of others who may not be household names but whose songs have assuredly been heard in almost every house. He could never have dreamed he’d still be doing it with substantial success into his 90s. But on the other hand, being Tony, maybe he did. Looking back, it appears nothing was ever going to stop him except the hand of God Himself.

Being a devoted child of the pop-rock era, it was not until my mid-20s (in the mid-1990s) that I first started listening to Tony’s kind of music. It was easy for types like me to be drawn first to the cool of cats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby (with the sense of an ounce or two of kitsch in the mix). But listening on that level didn’t get me to comprehend The Songbook. Around that time, Tony Bennett recorded his album Perfectly Frank; it was his take on 24 songs Sinatra had previously recorded, accompanied in this case by just the piano, bass and percussion of the Ralph Sharon Trio. Hearing him sing these tunes differently—and at the same time so well—began to open my mind to the durability and depth of the songs. “One for My Baby” can be sung up-tempo? There was also the blessing of being able to see Bennett sing live around that same time, at New York’s Apollo Theater and at Radio City Music Hall, stages which he certainly could own.

From there, for me, the journey into the music was further advanced by the great Verve songbook albums, with singers from Ella Fitzgerald to Blossom Dearie to Mel Tormé delivering their varied takes on the works of particular songsmiths. I was hooked, and completely absorbed into that music to the exclusion of any other for quite some time. There was so much to find and explore. It was exhilarating.

Tony Bennett himself was still making wonderful albums, like Steppin’ Out, Tony Bennett on Holiday, and then there was his older work to discover. The vigor and power of his early records was mindblowing; like The Beat of My Heart (1957), When Lights Are Low(1964) and Tony Makes It Happen (1967).

It was not long after that last one that Columbia Records decided Tony wasn’t making it happen enough in terms of record sales in the era of free love, and pressured him to record more contemporary material. Probably everyone has heard the story of how, after being compelled to record some Beatles tunes, he left the studio and vomited. Everyone knows it because Tony himself told the story. He got away (ultimately) with saying the sainted Lennon and McCartney were only good as emetics because of his total dedication to his own standard of taste. He just stuck with it. He left Columbia and had his kind of wilderness years in the 1970s and 80s, and then, with the canny marketing help of his son Danny and just his own continued devotion to the music he loved, he made it all happen again and became the toast of the MTV generation. In doing so, he truly became an irresistible ambassador for that music.

My own favorite album of his (originally two LPs) was actually recorded during those wilderness years, on the Improv label. It’s Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers & Hart Songbook, which I’ve written about previously. With the unusual backing of the Ruby Braff (on trumpet)/George Barnes (on guitar) Quartet, Tony’s voice comes down just enough—maybe half a notch—so that it floats above the bed of their smart and insouciant accompaniment. The love that Bennett has for the songs fairly overflows from the grooves. It’s unsurpassable stuff.

Tony Bennett was more complex than the smiling image he projected, as covered in David Evanier’s excellent biography of him, All the Things You Are, which I reviewed in this space. Yet he’ll be remembered most for his simple and undying love for that timeless Great American Songbook, and his indefatigable application of the gifts God gave him to spread the joy he found in it to others, all over the world.

May he rest in peace.

A Biblical Pet Peeve

It is one of the harshest responses Jesus is ever reported to have delivered to someone seeking his help; indeed, it’s arguably the only occasion recorded in the gospels where he responded to a sincere supplicant in a harsh manner. It is when, in initially rejecting her plea, he seems to compare a Gentile woman to a dog. As the old King James has it:

But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (Matthew 15:26)

To call someone a dog is generally understood as intending insult even in today’s super pooch-friendly Western society, but in the Middle East, and 2000 years ago, there could be no mistaking the implication. Them’s fightin’ words. Although, culturally, it wouldn’t have been so unusual for Jews of that time and place to react negatively to Gentiles, the gospels do not otherwise show Jesus comporting himself in this way. (Earlier in the same Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had answered the Roman Centurion’s plea to heal his sick servant without any hesitation.)

But what if there has long been an error or inadequacy in translation from the Greek that puts the episode in a significantly different light?

I am not a credentialed Bible scholar, but fortunately I do not come up with this all by my lonesome. Multiple important Biblical translators going back 500 years have taken the same view, as we’ll see; however, those translations have not become the dominant ones. Doubtless, also, many preachers, struggling to give a sermon on the passage, have looked more closely at the Greek for inspiration and have noted this issue for themselves and their congregants. Personally, however, I’ve never sat in a pew and heard it spoken of from the pulpit, although I’ve heard quite a few sermons on this story over my lifetime. So I think it is something that more people should be aware of, and I’d like to go at it in my own way. (It seems, in any case, that no one can stop me.)

Therefore, let’s get to the specifics. The story in question is recounted both in chapter 15 of the Gospel of Matthew and in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon and was staying in a house there.

From Matthew 15:22–28 (ESV):

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

In Mark 7, the woman is described as being “a Syrophoenician by birth.” Mark also says of the house where Jesus was staying that Jesus “did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.” The issue of translation, which relates to that word “dogs,” is common to both gospels.

To look at the Greek, one can these days utilize an interlinear translation. You can find one in a downloadable version for Windows at this link. They also provide PDFs. This is a link to Matthew 15.

You will be able to see there, in Matthew 15:26, that when Jesus speaks the fateful line about not casting the children’s bread to dogs, the word in Greek that he uses is kunariois. This is the diminutive form for dogs, and this passage (and the corresponding one in Mark 7) is the only time in the New Testament in which the diminutive form for dogs is used. Translated literally it means “little dogs;” it’s been suggested that alternative ways of rendering it would be puppies, house dogs, pets, or even, if you want to be cute, doggies.

Well! Does this not change everything? Instead of comparing the woman to a dirty and predacious beast in the street, Jesus is comparing her to a puppy or a little pet. Not exactly a compliment, I guess, but nowhere near the aggressive insult of the former translation. You could even make the case that it contains elements of affection. It also provides the Canaanite woman with her opening, because of-course where would you find these little pet dogs except under the table during meals, hoping for crumbs—and this is exactly what she expresses back to Jesus. Her answer shows her great faith, certainly; but it does not come after such a cruel put-down.

I am not a preacher, but I would speculate that this makes the story much easier to preach on. I’ve never heard anyone come up with a satisfactory answer as to why Jesus spoke so harshly in this instance. It turns out, he didn’t.

So how did this come to be mistranslated in the first place? Well, turns out, it didn’t—in the first place—if by the “first place” we consider the first time the New Testament was translated directly from the Greek text into English (as opposed to previous English renderings from the Latin Vulgate). This great task was accomplished by William Tyndale in 1525. And in translating Matthew 15 and Mark 7, Tyndale renders the word as “whelps,” a synonym for puppies. (I love the edition edited by David Daniell of Tyndale’s work, with modern spelling, a gift from my better half.)

So the first try at it got it right. One of the next major translations of the Bible into English was the Geneva Bible, which first emerged in 1560. In this case you can find it (the 1599 edition) online at Bible Gateway. Here is a link to Matthew 15; scroll down to verse 26 and there you are: whelps is the word, and the same in Mark 7.

So what happened to send it all to the dogs? Well, I’m not sure what happened, but I know when it happened, and that was in 1611. The inestimable treasure that is the King James Bible, repository of so much beautiful language, still read by millions today, and which borrowed much from Tyndale’s earlier work, instead renders the word in Matthew 15:26 and the related verses (including in Mark 7) as just plain ol’ dogs. Why? I can only assume that it is impossible now to know. (Please drop me a line if you are more knowledgeable.) However, the overwhelming dominance of the King James, and its influence on later translations, basically put paid to the poor little puppies.

Still, if that was some kind of sin, there exists something of a story of redemption. The only English translation in anything like popular use today which renders the words in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 as “little dogs” instead of “dogs” is none other than the New King James Version (NKJV), first published in 1982 (and not to be confused with the 21st Century King James Version). As for the Revised Standard, the New Revised Standard, the English Standard, the New American Standard, the New International, and the (Catholic) New American versions: all of these, and more—just dogs.

An honorable mention must be given to Young’s Literal Translation, of 1898, which lives up to its name, translating the Greek literally as “little dogs.”

So far we’ve focused on the Bibles of reformers and Protestants, but our dogged pursuit of the matter cannot leave out the Roman Catholic Church. And I think this is quite interesting. In the fourth century (Saint) Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into Latin. This became the Latin Vulgate, and was the definitive Bible text of the Western church for centuries. How did Jerome handle the issue, translating from Greek to Latin? You can find his Mark 7 at this link. When Jesus speaks, the word is rendered as “canibus,” or dogs; when the woman replies, the word is rendered as “catelli,” or whelps. The same is true for Matthew 15. You could say Jerome split the difference; but, then, there wasn’t really a difference to split, in the Greek. I guess he just liked it that way. Yet it leaves Jesus using the harsher word, and that after all is the key point which has made the story unnecessarily difficult.

The Douay-Rheims was at first a Roman Catholic translation from the Latin Vulgate to English in the 16th century, but apparently it then went through multiple substantial revisions without changing its name. The 1899 American Edition is accessible via Bible Gateway, and it does follow the Vulgate on the question at hand. In Matthew 15, Jesus says dogs, and the woman says whelps.

The American Roman Catholic Confraternity Version (my mother’s old copy having the Imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman in 1961) dispenses entirely with the whelps, and has both Jesus and the woman, in both Mark 7 and Matthew 15, speaking only of dogs. The current Roman Catholic New American Bible, as noted earlier, does the same.

So, why? Why any of it? Well, we can’t go back and ask those long dead translators for their reasoning. We can, however, and more relevantly, wonder why modern and indeed contemporary translators have not corrected the text (outside of the NKJV folks).

What is certainly true with regard to new Bible translations is that the the notion of correction is often relative. One man’s correction is another man’s destruction or vandalism. That has to be one of the main reasons why we have so many competing translations in English these days. Where is the line drawn?

In this case, I submit that the line should be drawn with those poor, long-neglected little dogs, by including them in. I believe it would have the triple advantage of being more accurate, more beautiful and more edifying.

Compare it, for example, to another instance, where a “correction” has been made in most translations, but it arguably does not satisfy the above criteria. (And there are undoubtedly many more such.)

Who—Christian or otherwise—has not heard the phrase, “[i]n my father’s house are many mansions”? This is a line that is referenced in vast swathes of English literature, and frequently invoked to this day, whether in a strictly religious context or simply as a matter of allusion.

From chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, the second verse, the King James Version (and likewise how Tyndale had rendered it):

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

It seems to me that what makes these words so very memorable and powerful is exactly the incongruity of having mansions contained within a house. Mansions themselves are very big houses, no? But Jesus is talking about the house of God here, and what He has waiting for us therein. It fires the imagination, and has fueled countless encouraging, eloquent and fortifying sermons over the centuries, as well as innumerable hymns.

But is it actually an accurate rendering of the Greek text, and in particular for modern readers? Harrumph. The modern translators don’t seem to think so. As early as the Revised Standard Version of 1946, it had been changed to rooms. “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Other translators say “dwelling places.” Phooey! I know it’s the same fundamental point, but it’s been stripped of its poetry, and to what end? What has been gained, versus what has been lost?

And certainly, if that kind of strictness is going to be applied in cases where so much is lost in the name of gaining some supposed superior accuracy, then how much more should it be applied in the case of the little dogs of Matthew 15 and Mark 7, who are neither hurting anyone nor robbing the world of its poetry, but are merely waiting, tails humbly wagging, to receive our crumbs?

* * *

In loving memory of all of those good dogs, both the little and the large.

Billie (2004 – 2018)

Frank Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me!: A Revelation in Mono

vinyl LP Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

vinyl LP Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

Who says there’s any such thing as settled science? And it’s where science and art meet that we find ourselves, in a collision of controversies where we may ultimately prove that no fact is ever too old to be upended.

In other words, I came across, in a local thrift store, a monophonic LP edition of Frank Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me—as opposed to the stereophonic version I was familiar with—and reality will never be the same. The album is one from Sinatra’s golden era at Capitol Records; it’s arranged and conducted by Billy May, and was released in 1961. Sinatra never put out mere random collections of songs, least of all at Capitol Records, where he effectively invented the notion of concept records, beginning with Songs for Young Lovers in 1954. Come Swing with Me, then, has a marked approach. It is self-evidently a swinging record, with a positive and energetic mood, featuring a lot of songs that Frank had recorded in his younger days with Columbia Records, now given the full treatment with his more mature, aged-in-a-whiskey-cask voice. Billy May also supplies instrumentation and arrangements that are quite novel and distinctive. There are no strings on the album; there is only brass and rhythm, and a LOT of brass: eight trumpets, four French horns, tuba, six trombones, and two bass trombones.

According to Will Friedwald in his authoritative Sinatra! The Song is You, Frank had heard and liked Billy May’s Big Fat Brass instrumental album, and it was his idea to take a similar approach with Come Swing with Me. (Friedwald also notes that May, being overstretched by other projects, actually called on fellow musician/arranger Heinie Beau to write seven of the twelve charts, albeit in the Billy May style. He assuredly succeeded because there’s no telling the difference.)

Another novel aspect was the rather dramatic use of stereo separation. So, there is something of a call and answer effect, with some horn sections or subsections coming entirely from the left speaker and some entirely from the right. The intention was … well, I assume it was to create for the listener a sense of being front and center of a stage where the musicians were performing, some to the left and some to the right. It adds dynamism, as they say. But here’s the thing: for yours truly, it has always been kind of annoying. Although I can recognize that Come Swing with Me is a unique album, with great material, peerless singing and witty, vivacious arrangements, I just have not listened to it nearly as often as the comparable Come Dance with Me or Come with Fly with Me albums. The bleating of some horns from the left and the blaring of others from the right has always struck me as a distraction, and the album just sounded kind of harsh to my ears (which is not a word that comes easily to me when characterizing any Frank Sinatra recording). And to be clear, what I’m describing is the experience of listening to the regular old CD edition of the album, on a fairly regular stereo system; so, not any hi-falutin’ hi-fi room, and not any esoteric remastering of the album—your mileage may vary in those respects.

Back to the thrift store: Vinyl records are usually 50 cents at this place, but they had a half-price sale, so it was a quarter per platter. Someone had recently donated a raft of Sinatra LPs, in relatively rough condition, but at 25 cents each, it was hard to turn down any of them. I mean, you never know. And the truth of that maxim has never been more soundly vindicated.

I believe it wasn’t until I was back home that I noticed the Come Swing with Me LP was a mono edition. You can tell with these old album covers when they write “High Fidelity” and other praise upon it but don’t explicitly say “stereo.” Stereo was something to advertise back then. So, obviously in 1961 they were still pressing records in mono—even when originally recorded in stereo—for the many folks who still had monophonic turntables. (Indeed, in my benighted childhood I was limited to a mono record player even in the 1980s … but please don’t get me started on that.)

So, let’s get to it: I cleaned the dust as best I could from this 60 year-old vinyl record, and put it on. It looked rather worn, but it played well enough, with little noise and no skips. I always find that miraculous, when it occurs with these old records that have clearly not been kept in archival conditions. But more miraculous to my ears was the absence of all that tooting and bleating from one speaker to another. The album just sounded right. Where before there was harshness to my ears, now all was soft and relatively salve-like. Strong and muscular, to be sure, but smooth. In fact, I marveled that had I not known that the album was all brass and no strings, I probably wouldn’t have cottoned on to that fact. It was all arranged and played so well; there was nothing to jar the listener from just enjoying it.

I was taken to such an extent with how wonderful it sounded, compared to the stereo-separated version, that I thought this must have been the original that Frank approved, and later they jiggered it with the new-fangled effects. But history reports this is not so. Sinatra was apparently as excited by the chance to use the stereo in this dramatic way as anyone. It surprises me in particular because I thought Frank was not fond of overbearing or showboating musical distractions from his voice; yet, to me, that’s exactly the ill effect that is achieved by the excessive stereo separation.

Well, what can you say? Can we dig up Sinatra and Billy May and bawl them out? They were human, after all. Actually, I don’t think they’re making humans anymore the way those guys were made, and it’s our loss.

So it seems I’m commending to you, dear reader, something which you may well find impossible to acquire. (You’re welcome.) I don’t know that Come Swing with Me was ever officially issued in CD or any digital format in mono. (With Sinatra it’s a bit hard to keep track of all global releases.) You might find a “vinyl rip” of the mono LP in the dark webs, but of-course we at THE CINCH REVIEW do not advocate lawlessness. Just be assured that if you do come across this mono LP (Capitol W 1594) in your local thrift store, secondhand shop or elsewhere, it’s likely to be well worth the 25 cents to you, and perhaps considerably more.

Frank’s not putting out much new stuff these days. Come Swing with Me, in mono, is unquestionably the best new album I’ve heard all year.

For the record, the track list is:

(Side One) Day by Day
Sentimental Journey
Almost Like Being In Love
Five Minutes More
American Beauty Rose
Yes Indeed!
(Side Two) On The Sunny Side of The Street
Don’t Take Your Love From Me
That Old Black Magic
Paper Doll
I’ve Heard That Song Before

They’re all total winners. Despite the fact that Sinatra at this time was running out his contract with Capitol and extremely eager to move on to his own new label (Reprise), his singing here is pure dynamite. For the ages.

Frank Sinatra Come Swing with Me

Ai, Yai, Yai: Artificial Intelligence Really Arrives

I personally made the above image of the crossed-out robot to symbolize “AI Free Zone,” in order to stick it on my website. It took me days. Shucks, using AI, it probably would have taken mere seconds. But then that would have defeated the purpose. (And try explaining that to a robot.)

For years we’ve been hearing about the steady approach of the age of artificial intelligence. It sounded to me like dystopian sci-fi but I was too busy listening to old Bing Crosby LPs to spend any real time worrying. I bet the same goes for you. Then, whoops, I go look at Twitter and everyone’s talking about ChatGPT, which has come out of the “OpenAI” project (and it turns out that project is not so “open” anymore). In this and other incarnations AI is coming online but fast and it’s a highly commercial proposition. It’s about ready to do your job, supply your news, buy your house and play pretty melodies of its own composition on a banjo while you retire to another realm entirely.

You haven’t heard as much about it as you should have in the mainstream press, but then, by the time you read this, AI itself might be writing all those stories about the Trump indictment and the price of eggs, and supplying evidentiary photos and videos to boot. One of the things we’re going to have get used to most quickly is that AI does not merely have the ability to generate false news (on an unutterably massive scale) but because this ability exists it will be increasingly hard to persuade any critical mass of people (remember them?) of the undeniable truth of any actual news. And you thought it was hard enough already to keep track of which conspiracy theories have come true, which ones will come true in six months, and which ones will take another couple of years to mature. The existence of AI will demand a much larger set of file folders to separate each day’s mis-information, dis-information, mal-information, and that rare but potential actual plain old information. The good news is that AI can print all the necessary labels for you.

Do you want to listen to music composed by AI, or read stories and poetry written by a machine, no matter how seemingly beautiful and compelling? I don’t. I think the very concept has a strong scent of evil about it. Yet, I’m fully anticipating that anyone who thinks like me will very soon be regarded much like a member of some primitive tribe in the wilderness who thinks that having his photo taken steals his soul.

But advanced computerization is not really the problem. It can achieve amazingly good things, like new medicines and more evocative emojis. The problem is to whose service the technology is ultimately devoted. Is it for average Joes? Well, it’s not an auspicious time to be born as an average human being. Populations have been in decline in many societies across the globe, and this extinction syndrome is spreading. Notwithstanding this, humans continue to be under attack at the beginning of their lives, with abortion, and at the later stages, with euthanasia, and increasingly at points in-between, with judgments being made about the worthiness of the lives of people afflicted with any kind of suffering that defies easy cure.

And since multiple generations of schoolchildren have been taught that humans are responsible for world-ending global warming, many self-identifying homo-sapiens are inclined to believe that the universe would be better off without us.

Enter artificial intelligence, which promises to be able to do many of the things that used to be the sole bailiwick of the human animal, and the average Joe and Jill are soon going to be wondering what they’re even here for. They won’t be the only ones wondering. AI becomes the latest tool which the powerful possess to corral the regular folk into being controllable citizens.

Somebody once wrote:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27)

That was some pretty good stuff someone came up with, before the computer, before the typewriter, before the ballpoint pen, before paper. That notion of the human being having been made in the image of God has been a touchstone; it has not made this world perfect, but it has been invoked countless times to reverse great injustice and horrible cruelty. Even if you’re an atheist, you need some rationale that asserts a special sanctity to human life, or else everything becomes utilitarian, and people are valued only for what they can do, instead of simply for what they are.

Artificial intelligence is going to test such notions to an extent they’ve never been tested. And it’s screaming into the station at about 200 miles per hour. The only thing the techies seem to agree on is that the engine has no brakes. And they built it!

* * *

But never fear. Anytime you need a goofy little article by a flawed piece of flesh and blood on music, occasionally one about a book or a movie, maybe with a bit of topical commentary, and a good indigestible swirl of half-baked philosophizing, this human will be somewhere in the vicinity of this website writing one (or at least thinking about it).

That is, until my plug gets pulled, by AI, or the real Big Guy—whichever comes first.

Shenandoah (Across the Wide Missouri)

“Shenandoah” is a powerful and mysterious song of America, which people everywhere seem to find moving. I think of it as “of” America both in the sense that it comes from America and in some difficult-to-pin-down fashion it is about America. It is neither a patriotic tune nor an anthem, but it gets at America in a more oblique way; one might compare it to the way in which the song “We’ll Meet Again” conjures thoughts of England, or “Danny Boy” makes people think of the Emerald Isle, or “Myfanwy” evokes Wales. Arguably, like those tunes, it is a national song of heartache.

It’s a song that has long been sung around the world, with many variations. A modern case in point is the rather lovely rendition (embedded via YouTube below) by a Norwegian chanteuse named Sissel.

Sissel’s is not dissimilar to many latter-day versions of “Shenandoah” in that it includes very few words. She sings basically just a few fragments of much longer and older renditions, of the like one still might hear played in folk music circles. It is, in terms of the lyric, very stripped down; there is really no definable narrative at all. Yet, married to that tune, I think most any person of flesh and blood finds it deeply affecting and evocative.

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri

Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri

Oh Shenandoah, I’m bound to leave you
Away, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I’ll not deceive you
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri

There is of-course much history to the song—enough to fill a couple of fat books. The most basic story is this: The “Shenandoah” of the title (although often taken to be the river in Virginia) was an Iroquois Indian chief, and some of the earliest known lyrics tell a story of a white trader who longed to marry that chief’s daughter but was rejected. The composer is unknown, and as far as anyone seems to be aware it emerged into what was then the popular consciousness as a shanty sung by boatmen and traders voyaging down the Missouri river in the middle of the 19th century. Being traveling types, some of these men ultimately would have carried the song across the Atlantic and beyond.

History and musicology aside, what makes the song so fascinating to me is just how powerfully poignant it is even in its most simplified incarnations; actually, especially in its most simplified incarnations. Why that is must remain ineffable on a certain level, but I have not been able to stop myself wondering about it.

I think that this magical pairing of words and music expresses something fundamental to our human condition that we rarely encounter in song, and rarely enunciate, but inwardly we know to be true. Hearing it shakes us up, albeit in a very good way. There is a sense of mourning in the song, but it is without bitterness. The singer expresses deep longings, but only knows that he (or she) is bound to go, across the mighty river that rolls unceasingly on. Shenandoah himself is being called upon not so much as a person but more like an ancient spirit of the land. There is a deep sense of wonder and submission in the face of the vast spaces and forces that must carry the singer along and inevitably distance him from those he loves.

I would suggest that one doesn’t have to have been voyaging down the Missouri river in the 1850s to have experienced that scenario; rather, it is a very true way of looking at our own lives. After all, we have far less control than we mostly allow ourselves to believe. We come into existence not through any act of our own will. The circumstances into which we are born are beyond our control, and there are countless forces that impact our lives in ways we cannot avoid. We spend our lives striving for autonomy within that which is left to us, losing many we love along the way; finally, nature also carries our own selves away in death. We are specks of dust tossed about in an inconceivably vast landscape. As another songwriter has written: “As for man, his days are like grass / He flourishes like a flower of the field / For the wind passes over it, and it is gone / And its place knows it no more.” (Psalm 103)

The words and music of “Shenandoah” get at that knowledge and that feeling, and at the yearning and unavoidable loss that underlies all human lives, and yet the song does not answer with anger or with hopelessness or with cynicism, but only with a profound sense of awe and of acceptance. Hearing it can, as they say, make strong men cry. It can be quite cathartic and it is, without doubt, absolutely sublime.

* * *

At any rate that’s what I have come to think about the song. Girding up to writing this little thing on it, I’ve listened to many versions. I do believe the power of “Shenandoah” can astound those who sing it. No singer or performer is bigger than this song; they all bow to it in some way. There are, at the time of writing, many stirring and/or interesting renditions on YouTube, and I’ll link below to a few.

The good old Robert Shaw Chorale can stand in here for all the countless male voice choirs that have performed “Shenandoah” and continue to do so. (There’s a very tasteful slideshow video in this case; believe it or not, not all on YouTube can be so described.)

Paul Robeson receives credit for popularizing the song in the era of recorded music, and his rather glorious rendition is a touchstone.

Giving the ladies and the Europeans another look-in, the clip below is a grand concert performance from Slovenia.

No one should miss hearing the song in the dulcet baritone of the great Tennessee Ernie Ford, in this clip from his television show where he evokes the sea shanty character of the tune.

(Ernie Ford, by the way, was quite the historian of song. As a case in point, check out his double album of Civil War songs: one platter with the Yankee tunes, and the other featuring the Confederate ones. Just try that today, kids.)

The version below by Stuart Foster is titled “Across the Wide Missouri,” and is an example of those that adapt the song into something of a more conventional love ballad. “My lady love, she stands awaitin’ … on the banks, I hear her calling …” Changing the words in this way makes a serviceable love song out of a composition that is otherwise so much more than that. So, in this case, what it loses in the translation is what’s interesting to yours truly.

Somewhat in the interest of completeness, we should not forget that there is a movie named Shenandoah, from 1965, directed by Andrew McLaglen. It uses the tune as its theme, but in the context of the river in Virginia and the Civil War. It stars the incomparable Jimmy Stewart and has plenty of other elements on paper that would lead one to think it ought to be a classic, and to many it is; unquestionably, it’s a much-loved film. Yet, I re-watched it recently and have to confess I found it to be a mind-blowing mess. If you want Jimmy Stewart in any kind of western context, my recommendation would be to watch The Far Country, or Bend of the River, or Winchester ’73, all directed by Anthony Mann. Or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, by John Ford.

If anyone had a voice that could almost still the waves, it was Liam Clancy, and I’d sure want him on my boat to belt out “Shenandoah.” To me, his is one of the essential renditions.

And ending with another Irishman (they seem to think the song is theirs), below is a clip featuring the great Van Morrison performing “Shenandoah” with The Chieftains. There is no one who can bring out the transcendent nature of song better than the Belfast Cowboy, and that is not stated lightly.

And it’s away we’re bound to go.