Sunday, February 17, 2008

Unwholesome, Unhealthy, Unknowable

Wanda Jackson inspires thoughts in me that verge on the Unwholesome... The Unhealthy... The Unknowable...

I've always found myself unable to resist a woman who can rock as hard as a fella. Patti Smith scared the shit out of me in 1976 -- a raging succubus who had no qualms about demanding Just Where She Wanted to Be Touched. I fell hard for Allison Robertson of the Donnas when I saw her wielding a Les Paul with all the panache of a Jimmy Page. Joan Jett, despite my lack of chances with her, gets me seriously hot and bothered.

But this Wanda Jackson... Wow. That beaded skirt, which she doesn't hesitate to make move in all kinds of disturbing shimmery ways. That hardened, raspy voice, singing Biblical parables about Sampson and Delilah, about Ahab and Jezebel, with a lustiness and abandon that suggest so much more than they say overtly...

I don't know who that guitar-flogger is who comes in halfway through, playing that weird two-necked instrument -- half Telecaster, half Gibson mandolin -- but man he's good! Contrastingly, I'd like to gently remind that trumpeter that the trumpet is not a rock-n-roll instrument, and would you please go peddle that shit elsewhere...

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Remarkable Young Man Is He

This morning, as my mind wandered (where it will go), a snatch of melody entered the Jingo cranium. (This is not quite as pleasant as a melody of snatch, but ah well.)

It was a tune that I last heard sometime in 1964, from a single in my parents' collection. Astonishing that it has remained with me all these years. The melody is obviously very catchy -- I suspect it of being adapted from another tune. The lyric (as best I can remember it) goes:
John F. Kennedy
A remarkable young man is he
At age forty-three
Elected to the Presidency

He served his country proudly
And when the war was won
This hero of the Solomons
Went on to Washington.

(Repeat chorus)

He was born in Massachusetts
In the city of Brookline
And tumpty-tumpty-tumpty tum
On PT One-Oh-Nine....
That's a much as I can reconstruct, from memory and a Google search.

But what a remarkable little ditty, no? From internal evidence, it's not a campaign song -- it must have been written after Kennedy's election, and I don't remember it referring to any assassination, although I could be wrong about that.

Some time ago, Hilary Clinton's campaign held an online survey to choose her campaign song -- and the result pretty much lost her my vote.

When did we stop coming up with original campaign songs? I suspect the shattering of the national musical aesthetic into a million shards of incompatible tastes and genres might have had something to do with it: It's hard to imagine a single song in a genre that would appeal to the public mind at large. A country campaign song? A hip-hop tune? An aria? You see the problem.

But you see, we once had an Official Musical Language that was OK for everybody to like -- or at least tolerate:

Later Edit: Those are some graphics, huh? And they're completely, unutterably pre-ironic! The world really did once look like that!

Friday, February 08, 2008

After You've Gone

As promised earlier, here's a master-class workout from Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.

If, after the lick Django pulls off at 1:25 (first instrumental break after the scat-singing -- a bit more than a third of the way through), the top of your head is still attached to your skull, you seriously need to check your pulse. The proper reaction to that break is an exploded head, brains all over the ceiling, tragic phone calls to the relatives, Oh dear god the poor thing listened to "After You've Gone" without proper due care, forewarning, and protective gear...

After You've Gone (pops)

Cat Could Blow...

Two fingers.

He did that shit with two fingers on his fretting hand. The ring finger and pinkie were almost completely paralyzed -- although you can see from this vid he did use them for chords.

There's a take of "After You're Gone" that contains the single most jaw-dropping guitar lick I've ever heard. I'll post it up after I get home to the Collection.

I'd thought that the above was the only existing footage of Django Reinhardt playing, but apparently not.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Operator Error

I once walked up to an elevator in a New York apartment building. It was an elderly edifice, and its elevator was similarly venerable.

A man approached the elevator door at the same time as me, but from the opposite direction. Unremarkable occurrence.

We stood, as strangers do, well apart from each other, and stared discreetly off into space, examining the floor, the elevator door, the ceiling -- anything to avoid an embarrassing meeting of the eyes.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In a situation like this, after a certain amount of time has passed, it becomes permissible in the presence of a stranger to betray a certain amount of polite impatience. No kicking the wall or pounding the elevator door -- but a quiet sigh and a murmured "Jeeze, slow elevator, huh?" will not get you marked as a lunatic. My interlocutor gave a mild grunt of agreement, and we went back to staring into space.

And we waited some more.

I wasn't staring at my watch or anything, so it's hard to gauge objectively just how long we stood in front of the elevator door, but it was a good long time. Four minutes? Five? Long enough, anyway, for me to begin to suspect that the elevator was out of order and the building's management negligent in failing to post a sign to that effect. (There was no gauge on the wall indicating the elevator's current position; it was too old for such fripperies.)

By and by, an old but reliable lesson from the early days of industrialization occurred to me: When a machine isn't working as expected, and no obvious mechanical symptoms present themselves, it is wise to consider Operator Error. My fellow stooge must have had the same thought, or something like it, because we turned to each other and we said in mortified unison:

"You did push the button, didn't you?"

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Under the rubric of General Research, I took a couple of weekend afternoons to reread Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I haven't poked my nose into for quite a few years. (I say, Neddie, is that at all relevant to the Origins of Bluegrass? You bet your ass it is, Chuck-o!) I'd forgotten completely what an asshole Tom Sawyer proves to be, and certain passages -- particularly the ecstatic description of river-raft life on the lam in Chapter XIX -- misted me up a little. The ending's a little rushed, I think.

My edition was edited by Henry Nash Smith, whose Introduction is worth reading. In his insightful curating, he makes this fascinating point about Victorian language:
Just as effective as the individualizing of the characters by their speech is Mark Twain's device of establishing a common diction and rhetoric for all characters the moment they try to claim for themselves a false pathos...or an undeserved moral authority.... Different as the characters are in their natural selves, when they fall into pretense they all sound alike because they all begin to speak in a burlesque of the exalted rhetoric of the official culture. This "high" language might be called the "alas!" or the "soul-butter" mode of speech.
(The term "soul-butter" is Huck's own invention, which he uses after watching a transparently phony speech by the Dauphin, and the watching crowd strikes up "the doxolojer": "Music is a good thing; and after all that soul-butter and hogwash, I never see it freshen up things so, and sound so honest and bully.")

We don't do "soul-butter" much anymore -- and probably rightly so. If asked to deliver, say, a eulogy, I would shoot for tasteful, direct language rather than hifalutin phony poetry -- for precisely the reason Smith points out: We're trained (not least of all by Mark Twain himself) to view that "Alas!" school of rhetoric as a disguise for pretense and dissembling. The writers of Deadwood understood this brilliantly; the chief source of soul-butter in that cast of characters was the loathsome, sticky E. B. Farnum, who never spoke any other way.

Of course, there's good soul-butter and bad. The Gettysburg Address, I think we'd all agree, is very good soul-butter indeed, an application of "exalted rhetoric of the official culture" put to good use. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Twain's hysterically funny poem, attributed to the young, departed Emmeline Grangerford, "Ode to Stephen Dowlding Bots, Dec'd," ("Then list with tearful eye/Whilst I his fate do tell/His soul did from this cold world fly/By falling down a well") would occupy the opposite extreme. The poem on the obverse of John Mobberly's gravestone? Quite awful Victorian soul-butter.

Here's one of the reasons why Huck Finn is relevant to the Origins of Bluegrass: Quite a few of the sentimental Tin Pan Alley songs that formed much of the early repertiore were lyrically quite soul-butter-intensive: Think of "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake":
I heard the screams of our little girl far away
Hurry daddy there's an awful dreadful snake
I ran as fast as I could though the dark and dreary woods
But I reached our darling girl too late

Oh, I began to sigh, I knew that soon she'd have to die
For the snake was warning me close by
I held her close to my face she said Daddy kill that snake
It's getting dark, tell Mommy goodbye
Mmm, pour that melted soul-butter over my popcorn, an' throw in some salt! I'm here for the duration!