Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in that respect have been proved entirely correct.) Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours→
I’ve always liked the radio. There’s a visceral affection I have for small transistor radios that transcends any feeling I could ever have for any vulgar television set. I think of all the wonders that can come out of that little box with the grilled speaker—all that I learned about music and about the world while listening to it as a young ‘un; and in the here and now, there is this love I have for radio as a medium where one’s own mind and imagination are still in play, versus that televisual medium where so much (way too much) gets hurled at you in the way of stimulation, like it or not.
Still pursuing a recent obsession with Welsh music, this American-of-Irish-extraction thought he would reflect a little on the beautiful song “Calon Lân” (generally translated to English as “A Pure Heart”). It’s a song that seems to be deeply embedded in the Welsh culture, to such an extent that you could easily believe it were a much older song than it is. It was first published in 1899, which isn’t yesterday, but is certainly modern times, only fifteen years before WWI.
The lyric was written by the Welsh poet Daniel James, also known by his Welsh poetic nickname, “Gwyrosydd.” It’s reported that he wrote the words as a prayer and then later asked the Welsh tunesmith John Hughes (known also for the great melody “Cwm Rhondda”) to put it to music, which he did, promptly creating a hymn of some sublime beauty and power. Its first appearance was in a Sunday School periodical, and it became widely beloved during what is known as “The Welsh Revival” of 1904-1905, a revival of Christianity which is credited with spurring similar awakenings far beyond the borders of Wales.
The song is also one of a number of great Welsh melodies which can be heard in the classic film, “How Green Was My Valley,” directed by John Ford, from 1941.
It’s the kind of a song where I think most anyone listening to it would find it affecting even with absolutely no idea of what the words mean. I can say at least that it certainly had me reaching for a hankie the first time I heard it, though I had no tangible notion of what it was about. Somehow just the sound of the singing of those syllables and that tune left no doubt that it represented something very profound. It seemed unlikely that it was a song about, say, scrambled eggs. It came across as a statement from deep within the human soul, full of emotion; it was clearly an extraordinarily deep declaration or plea.
Quite a lot of people heard “Calon Lân” for the first time in this way when it was performed on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2012, by a choir of young Welsh lads known as “Only Boys Aloud.” It was one of those obviously choreographed but still likeable moments when people are unexpectedly wowed. The video is embedded via YouTube below (and then below that some more scribbling from me about the song). Continue reading Calon Lân / A Pure Heart→
At the age of 72, most pure pop vocalists (if they’re still able to sing) are playing it safe, rehashing their tried and true work, or recording duets with friendly young stars to lift their visibility. Spirit in the Room,the new album from Tom Jones on Rounder Records in the U.S., is, however, nothing like that.
A couple of months back, I wrote at some length about the recording which is the opening tune on this album, namely Tom Jones’ rendition of “Tower of Song,” written by Leonard Cohen. I found it quite moving, brilliant and defining. I still do, and listening to the album which accompanies it does not disappoint. I think that any day would be a nice day to hear an album like this one.
There’s a certain kind of courage involved for a vocalist in tackling new material—material which has hardly been touched by other vocalists—and it’s on display here, albeit that the casual listener might not necessarily pick up on it. Since Dylan and the Beatles, the notion of “authenticity” has been very weighty in the sphere of popular music, and it’s inherently challenging for a singer to take on a song that has already been sung by those that have composed it. Tom Jones here, in collaboration with his producer Ethan Johns, shows no fear, but sings songs that have been recorded both very recently and quite brilliantly by the respective composers. That he pulls it off in each case without sounding ridiculous is no small achievement. And he generally does much better than that. Continue reading Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room→
What is it about a great Ron Sexsmith song that can be so very pleasing and satisfying, right on the first hearing? I was trying to work that out while listening to one after another on his latest album, Forever Endeavor. For me at least I think it’s something like this: One has heard in one’s lifetime a whole lot of songs, by artists one likes a little or a lot, and there are so many instances where a song begins with promise but instead of fulfilling that promise it gets stuck, or reaches for a height it cannot attain. Sexsmith at his best can turn out a tune that is just so right, musically and lyrically, and seems to arrive and unfold effortlessly. He writes with an innate knowledge of so much of what’s come before him, and blends musical and lyrical references without strain.
Take just one song on this record. We’ve all heard of “Lonely Avenue,” but Ron Sexsmith gives us “If Only Avenue,” with a perfectly wistful and irresistible melody.
With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It’s strange, as people we’re prone to dwell
On things that we can’t undo
And we’re liable to wander down
If Only Avenue
Cue the wonderfully languid riff that anchors the tune, and basically there’s nothing you can say about this short, unpretentious pop song other than that it is flawless, and could easily be taken for a standard written forty years ago. As on a number of other tracks, producer Mitchell Froom has added string arrangements that are understated and apropos. The whole thing is just a sheer pleasure. Continue reading Ron Sexsmith: Forever Endeavor→
The final blessing of Moses on the people of Israel is described in chapter 33 of Deuteronomy. The first part of verse 27 goes like this (ESV):
The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
The famous American hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” was published in 1887, and was composed by two Presbyterian men, namely Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman. It was Showalter who received the initial inspiration, writing the refrain and the melody, reportedly after reaching for the above scriptural verse to console two former students of his who had both recently lost their wives. He then asked Hoffman—a prodigious hymn-writer credited with over 2000 religious songs—if he could come up with lyrics for the verses. Naturally he could.
In looking into the history of this song, I found the text of an old book online, written by one J.H. Hall, filled with short biographies of various composers of gospel songs. It includes this passage on Elisha Hoffman:
Mr. Hoffman’s first impressions of music came from hearing the voice of sacred song in the home. His parents both had sweet voices and sang well. It was their custom, in the hour of family worship, both morning and evening, to sing one or two hymns. The children early became familiar with these hymns and learned to love them and to feel their hallowing and refining power. Their lives were marvellously influenced by this little service of song in the home. A taste for sacred music was created and developed, and song became as natural a function of the soul as breathing was a function of the body.
As natural a function of the soul as breathing is of the body: What an inspired way of thinking about the singing of these kinds of songs. It immediately reminded me of the quote highlighted in this space last week from Abraham Joshua Heschel, where he says of losing oneself to prayerful music that: “it is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” Continue reading Leaning on the Everlasting Arms→
Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.
The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.
In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.
Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.
People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).
Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope. Continue reading Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)→
In concert lately, Leonard Cohen has been following his song “Amen” with his song “Come Healing,” which are both from his most recent album, Old Ideas.
There’s a fan’s YouTube clip embedded below, and a few thoughts from yours truly on the songs below that.
I think that “Amen” is as harrowing a song as he’s ever written. To my ears at any rate it is a deep moan to God, without sentimentality, laying out the worst of this world, begging maybe just to be able to believe it will be put right. Can God really want us, actually love us, after all of it? It’s a prayer for the evidence. Continue reading Leonard Cohen: “Amen” and “Come Healing”→
This evening, at a Thanksgiving Eve service at our little chapel in the wildwood, we heard a beautiful performance of a piece called Dank sei Dirr, Herr, sung by a mezzo-soprano accompanied by only piano. I was not familiar with the tune, but it was credited to Siegfried Ochs (1858-1929) in the service guide, and a little checking suggests that this is the widely-accepted accreditation these days, although it used to be believed that Handel had composed it.
Anyway, I was quite struck by it, both the beauty of the performance and the composition, and also its moving aptness in a Thanksgiving service. I’m embedding a version via YouTube at the bottom of this post, a grand performance with a singer named Gundula Hintz. The lyric is in German (which I’ll put below the video) but the translation is as follows:
Thanks be to Thee,
Lord God of Hosts:
Thou broughtest forth Your people
with Your mighty hand
Israel safe through the sea.
Lord, like a shepherd
Thou hast led us;
Lord, Thy hand protected us
in Thy goodness tenderly as in ages past.
The words sound reminiscent of any number of songs of praise and psalms from the Bible, but I don’t know a precise source, if there is one. The last few verses of Psalm 77 could be one.
Yet, the message is beautifully historic and specific and at the same time up-to-the-minute, relevant and universal. You might paraphrase it: Thank You, Lord God, for protecting Your people in the past, and thank You for protecting Your people now, every moment of every hour.
If you’re anywhere near the town of Kingston, in the state of New York, on May 5th, consider an evening with the two Bob Cohens. Flyer below.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, a little, one of the Bob Cohens, the one (on the right above) who played with the New World Singers back in the day and knew Bob Dylan in his Greenwich Village era, and he is not only an enormously accomplished musician but a truly catholic lover of music and an inestimable ambassador for the Great American Songbook. (He has a website at this link.)
If the other Bob Cohen has any comparable aptitudes, and I trust that he does, then a great night will be had by all.
I’ve recently read David Evanier’s All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett, and it seems to me that it will stand as the essential written reference point for anyone interested in this great American singer’s life and music. Of-course, being about the only proper biography written of Bennett (excluding his 1998 autobio The Good Life in collaboration with music-writer Will Friedwald) it lacks obvious competition. Nevertheless, this book is no knockoff, but an assiduously researched work by a writer completely engaged with his subject matter. It is far from an official biography and proceeds with that freedom; the aggressively private Bennett himself did not grant an interview and neither did some figures whom one could rate as key intimates of the singer, but out of a number of in-depth conversations with those individuals who did grant interviews, and a thorough marshaling of what is already public record, David Evanier has constructed an estimably credible and robust account of Bennett’s life and career.
When it comes to books on major figures in the entertainment world, you often have a dichotomy between those which focus on the famous individual’s personal life versus those which look at their art and life’s work with an appreciative eye. Evanier combines both approaches here, and, in addition to being the best way, objectively-speaking, of approaching the task, in Bennett’s case it also must be seen as the absolutely obligatory way. There could be no way of telling Tony Bennett’s life story in a meaningful way without getting to grips with his passionate devotion to his chosen musical form, and the full range of struggles and successes he has experienced in that realm. Continue reading All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennett by David Evanier→
Raquel Welch always gives an amusing interview. At 71 years-old, she’s not only a working actress in amazing and beautiful shape, but is prone to dishing commonsense with a great pithy and sassy style. In an interview with—of all things—the magazine Men’s Health, Welch fires bullets on the cultural decline being brought on by rampant sexual explicitness. Commenting first on the music business, she says:
It used to be about a great song, great lyrics and a great voice. And now everybody is more concerned with being cutting edge and pushing the envelope. You have to be funkier, you have to be more audacious and more provocative than anybody else. When there’s somebody like Adele, it seems revolutionary because she’s not out there in a g-string and pasties. You forget that all music, all art, isn’t about T&A and girls spreading their legs for the camera.
Observing society more generally, she goes on:
I think we’ve gotten to the point in our culture where we’re all sex addicts, literally. We have equated happiness in life with as many orgasms as you can possibly pack in, regardless of where it is that you deposit your love interest.
It’s just dehumanizing. And I have to honestly say, I think this era of porn is at least partially responsible for it. Where is the anticipation and the personalization? It’s all pre-fab now. You have these images coming at you unannounced and unsolicited. It just gets to be so plastic and phony to me. Maybe men respond to that. But is it really better than an experience with a real life girl that he cares about? It’s an exploitation of the poor male’s libidos. Poor babies, they can’t control themselves.
In many Christian churches this morning, the first reading would have been from Second Kings, chapter two, where the prophet Elijah is taken by God while his assistant and successor Elisha (who had repeatedly refused to leave him) looks on. They are walking by the river Jordan when it happens.
And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
That image of chariots of fire coming for Elijah inspired the widely-beloved spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which is credited to Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman who is believed to have composed it sometime circa 1860. Continue reading Swing Low, Sweet Chariot→
Bono (of U2) recorded the Jimmie Rodgers song “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes” for a Jimmie Rodgers tribute albumthat was put out on Egyptian Records in 1996. If you happen to look for it on YouTube currently, you’ll see multiple instances where it’s been uploaded, but most of the people uploading and commenting on it seem to be under the impression that the song is actually a Bono or U2 original.
You can listen to the embedded version above (though you might want to avoid looking at the slideshow of images associated with it by this particular uploader). A lot of the YouTubers believe it’s one of Bono’s greatest songs, or even the greatest. It’s not that surprising they assume it’s an original, because Bono’s rendition is certainly far away from any blue yodeling connotations; his characteristically big, breathy vocal floats atop a bed of piano and rising strings. However, that the version works very well is beyond question. In fact, I think it’s total dynamite, and likely the most striking contribution to that album (which is itself very good). Continue reading Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes→
Hank Williams’ voice is a unique and a gigantic one in American culture, which means that it is also one familiar to those who listen to popular music all across the world. Hank Williams is recognizable singing, say, “I Saw The Light,” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” even by people who couldn’t remotely be described as fans, in the same way as Bing Crosby is instantly recognizable singing “White Christmas,” or John Wayne is instantly recognizable in a cowboy hat saying, “The hell I won’t!” Hank Williams is just there as a reference point like the pyramids of Egypt or the Grand Canyon.
In speaking of Hank Williams’ voice, however, I very much mean it both in the sense of the instantly-recognizable product of his vocal cords and in the sense of what that voice has to say: how Hank Williams in singing a song describes the world, captures an emotion, issues a plea.
Although he died at the age of 29, Hank Williams is a patriarch of country music (if it’s legal to use the term patriarch anymore) but he is also much more than that: he is both patriarch and patron saint to songwriters everywhere, and to discerning aficionados of the art of song across all genres. No one lays it out there quite like Hank Williams did over and over again in his short songwriting career, with such a devastating combination of depth, honesty and economy. Even his more light and humorous songs are models of how to write a tune that’s instantly accessible, unpretentious and utterly timeless. Continue reading (Review) The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams→
The writer Ron Rosenbaum—who is working on his own biography of Bob Dylan—was interviewed by JWeekly.com. He had recently given a lecture at Stanford University called “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.” He’s asked in the article whether he thinks Bob Dylan is an observant Jew or not.
“It’s a difficult question to answer,” Rosenbaum said. “If you read the Internet, there are all sorts of sightings of Dylan at Chabad-Lubavitcher services. Does that mean he’s become one of them? I don’t know. Does that mean any of [the sightings] are verifiable? There are enough of them to make you think there’s something to it. But who knows? He could be exploring, experimenting, whatever. He’s certainly no longer the scolding Christian that he was for a few years.”
Dylan’s departure from Christianity “was sort of gradual,” he said. “It’s not like he formally abjured it. It just seemed to slip into the past.” In fact, Rosenbaum sees a profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life, including the ’60s years.
It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that it even needs to be said that there is a “profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life.” Isn’t that pretty hard to miss? But then the Jewish experience in America includes the phenomenon of those who try to run away from their Jewishness, in a variety of senses, and Dylan has given some reason to believe that he might be doing this at different times. This article also includes a quote from an interview Dylan gave to Rosenbaum in 1977, where he said, “I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish.” That sounds like a flat-out rejection, but I would suggest that (aside from Dylan’s knee-jerk hatred of labels) it was more an expression of frustration at that particular time with his failure up to that date to find answers in Judaism as he then knew it, based on his upbringing and life experiences. The whole subject of faith in Dylan’s life was to undergo an earthquake not long thereafter, and comments from him that touch on his Jewishness post-1979 are quite different. Continue reading Ron Rosenbaum on Bob Dylan, Judaism, Christianity etc→
Just thought I would mention it while it’s on my mind: I do think that “Forgetful Heart” (from Together Through Life) is one of the great latter-day Bob Dylan songs. And the live version of “Forgetful Heart” which Bob Dylan has been performing on recent tours, with Donnie Herron playing viola and Dylan singing center-stage, is one of the most beautiful, deeply resonant and spine-tingling things to ever occur during a Bob Dylan show, in this decade or any other. Continue reading Bob Dylan and “Forgetful Heart”→
Thanks to Bob Cohen for referring me to Dierks Bentley and his bluegrassy version of Bob Dylan’s song “Senor.” I hadn’t heard it; it’s very fine, and Bentley seems to be an estimable musician in general. “Senor” is featured on his album Up on the Ridge.
Dierks Bentley singing “Senor”
Checking Dierks Bentley out on Amazon, I see that they classify him under “Today’s Country” and also under “Neotraditional Country.” Neotraditional. Sounds like an epithet someone like Keith Olbermann might sling at someone like Sarah Palin. I realize the practical utility of musical categories, especially in the computer age, but I always see the downside of them first, which is the way they can build walls and limit freedom of perception. After the revolution, everything will strictly alphabetical. Continue reading “Senor” – Dierks Bentley sings Bob Dylan; thoughts on Street Legal→
Tony Bennett isn’t very well known for whispering. He’s a big singer—not in the sense that he over sings, but he certainly is known for the power to belt it out above muscular backing bands, and through his career he’s done plenty of that, and to good effect. And even in the plethora of latter day albums he made with the Ralph Sharon Trio, there’s a sense of grandeur to the backing that belies the actual simplicity of piano, bass and drums, and Tony often sings on those albums as if in front of a big orchestra. And that’s something in itself. But for true flat-out intimacy, there’s nothing he’s ever done that exceeds the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.
In 1973, Bennett saw trumpeter Ruby Braff and guitarist George Barnes leading a quartet in New York, with Wayne Wright on another guitar and John Giuffrida on bass. He sat in with them live, it went well, and one thing led to another. They went into the studio and over the course of a few days recorded twenty songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Continue reading Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook→
The day Michael Jackson’s death was reported, Yours Truly wrote a brief note:
What can you say about the American tragedy and grim parable that the Michael Jackson story represents? I’m stumped for comment. There’s just one pointless phrase that keeps repeating and repeating in my head: “Blame it on the boogie.” It was a good tune.
And it was. It can be heard and watched via YouTube below, but beware: the special effects in this video are mind-blowing, and have never been explained nor duplicated.
That song is from the Jacksons (aka Jackson 5) 1978 album Destiny. To my mind, it serves as the marker for the beginning of Michael Jackson’s golden years. His 1979 solo album, Off The Wall, continued the upward trend, and it peaked with 1982’s Thriller. Then, his music entered a steep decline, which was apparently mirrored in his personal life. The golden years were short, but strong enough to establish him in many people’s minds as a talent of historic proportions. It’s hardly necessary to point out that Michael Jackson seems to be tremendously overrated by some, and yet on the other hand he is sometimes too quickly dismissed by others. For a few years there he had a great thing going. He embodied a mercurial synthesis of pop, soul and disco, augmented by really great songwriting and smart, tasteful production. It’s just amazing how quickly something so good can fall apart.
Here’s a slightly more somber but still enjoyable take on “Blame It On The Boogie,” from friends The Higher Animals.
What time is it? It’s a good time to be listening to Louis Armstrong; that’s what time it is. Like any other time, in other words. I came across the clip below on YouTube and just had to stop and note it. It’s Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. One comment left on the video struck me: Every time I hear Louis I realise the world will never be the same. Isn’t that the truth? No matter how you cut it.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down
Oh, yes, Lord
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground
Oh, yes, Lord
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Also available on the great album, Louis and the Good Book.