‘No Knives For You!’

September 25th, 2018

I came into the EITW studios this morning and found Odd and Pop, my imaginary tuneheads, playing mumblety-peg on the carpet with a letter opener. It wasn’t going well.

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

After a few more rounds of that – I didn’t bother to find out what issue was under debate – I confiscated the letter opener, an ornate steel and brass Spanish weapon my sister got for me in Barcelona in 1968. Replacing it in its sheath, I told the two tuneheads that mumblety-peg was a game for outdoors.

They were aghast. “In the dirt?”

Yep, I told them. Outside in the dirt. Not in the carpet.

Both of them wrinkled up their noses and muttered “Ew!” (I didn’t tell them that with that exclamation, they’d successfully used one of the new words that the Hasbro company has authorized for Scrabble.)

Anyway, I said, a letter opener is not a knife. And I reminded them that they were not allowed to play with sharp objects. “No knives for you!”

“Well,” said Pop, “can we play a song about a knife?”

“And I bet I know which one you have in mind,” said Odd, with a sour face.

Pop nodded. “Mack the Knife,” he said.

Odd heaved a major sigh and shook his head wearily. “Go ahead. Tell me,” he said to Pop.

Pop nodded and began reciting: “First of all, Bobby Darin’s version was the top pop record for all of 1959, spending twenty-six weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, nine of them at No. 1, and it also went to No. 6 on the magazine’s R&B chart.”

Pop took a breath and then continued. “Seven other versions have reached the Hot 100.”

Odd shook his head wearily, and then said, “All right. List ’em.”

From somewhere, Pop materialized his perpetual legal pad and its accompanying marker and then wrote for a few minutes. He then handed the list to Odd:

Dick Hyman Trio, No. 8 in 1956
Richard Hayman & Jan August, No. 11 in 1956
Lawrence Welk, No. 17 in 1956
Louis Armstrong, No. 20 in 1956
Billy Vaughn, No. 37 in 1956
Les Paul, No. 49 in 1956
Ella Fitzgerald, No. 27 in 1960 (and No. 6 on the R&B chart)

Odd scanned the list and look at his pal. (They do get along, most of the time. They just have differing tastes in music – and pasta, for that matter.)

“There’s more, I assume” Odd said.

Pop nodded and told us that the original version of “Mack the Knife” was actually “Moritat von Mackie Messer” from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It was originally performed – according to Second Hand Songs – by Kurt Gerron in 1928. Pop added helpfully that many sources erroneously claim that Lotte Lenya sang the song in her role as Jenny, “but that’s likely because she recorded the song as ‘Moritat’ for her 1955 German album Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill.”

“Okay, okay,” said Odd. “So how many recorded versions are there?”

“Well,” Pop said, “at least three hundred and twenty-five. That’s how many Second Hand Songs lists. Lots of them in German, many in English, lots of instrumentals. And some in other languages, too: Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, Greek, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish and Welsh.”

Odd was beginning to smile. “You had me at ‘Croatian’,” he told his pal. And he turned to me. “Have we ever posted a song in Croatian?”

“Well, no,” I said, “but I guess we could.”

Odd beamed. Pop pouted a little, but I reminded him that a huge proportion of what we listen to here is on one chart or another. He nodded, a little grudgingly, then looked at Odd and shrugged his shoulders.

And we turned our attention to the speakers to listen to the vocal group Optimisti, which – according to Second Hand Songs – was based in the city of Ljubljana. During the group’s recording years (1958 to 1963), the city was in Yugoslavia; it is now the capital of Slovenia. The group Optimisti, says the website, sometimes performed and recorded as a quartet and sometimes as a quintet.

Here’s Optimisti’s version in Croatian of “Mornar Mackie,” released in 1962 on the EP Chanson d’amour. The vocal group is backed by the Ljubljanski Jazz Ansambel.

Saturday Single No. 609

September 22nd, 2018

I am, as I wrote the other week, an autumnal man.

I have always been so, even when I was much younger than I am now. Perhaps that is why, as I live in what is clearly the autumn of my time here, I have finally found peace of mind, comfort of soul, and a degree of happiness that just two decades ago I would have assessed as extraordinarily unlikely, if not actually impossible.

Perhaps the seasonal leavening brought to my life by the springtime outlook of the Texas Gal has brought the balance I’ve seemingly always needed. In any case, her presence in my life these past eighteen-plus years is a major part of the reason my life so satisfies me now. (And I know, with an awareness that warms me, that my presence in her life grants her similar satisfaction.)

I shan’t – to use a word my mom’s mother employed often – go beyond those thoughts today; I’ve dabbled in autumnal musings both in the piece I wrote the other week and in a fair number of pieces here over the years. But, moving from soul searching to reporting, I wanted to note that here in the midsection of the U.S., this year’s autumnal equinox takes place at 8:54 p.m. this evening. The southward bound sun will cross the equator at that moment, and for the next three or so months, each day’s hours of daylight will diminish and the hours of darkness will increase.

Around our place, many of the changes that accompany the season are underway: A very few of the leaves on the flowering crab have turned yellow and fallen. Some of the leaves on the adjacent linden are doing the same. Next to the linden, however, the maple tree has given no indication if its leaves will mirror the yellow of the other two or complement them with red or orange. We will know soon which it will be.

The grass beneath them is still green, awaiting the first overnight frost, which cannot be many nights away.

I observe these changes both through the window of my study and via my forays outside for errands or tasks. And, despite the chronic ails brought about by my leg and back problems and despite the – one hopes – more temporary ails of a late summer sinus infection, I observe those changes happily.

And this evening, autumn will arrive.

This calls for an autumnal tune. Here’s one of my favorites: “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” by The Band. It’s from the group’s self-titled 1969 album, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

2,397,000

September 20th, 2018

That’s a hefty number, 2,397,000 is. Where’d it come from?

Well this morning, I looked at the number of pages in the Word file for this blog. Since sometime early this year, I’d been stacking new posts on the top of the file, letting it get longer and longer until editing within it started to get a little unweidly.

The file was sitting at 139 pages with a word count of 58,575. It was time to start a new file. Back in the early days of this blog, I was zipping condensed files of albums to share here and at a couple of boards, so when I began writing blog posts, I called the first file “Zipped & Shared No. 1.”

(The zipping and sharing of files ended early in 2010, when WordPress escorted me from its premises for violations of its policies, just as Blogger had done some time earlier. Being out in the cold of Blogworld, as it were, spurred me to open my own domain, as well as to change the way I offered music: embedding or linking to YouTube videos, some of them my own creation. But I continued to title the Word files I used “Zipped & Shared No. XX.”)

Today, I opened a new file, one titled “Zipped & Shared No. 52.” And I wandered back into the folders that hold the first fifty-one similarly named files, wondering if the lengths of each individual file were about the same. They were, averaging something more than 47,000 words each. The vast majority of those counted words were, in fact, text for this blog, but there were some things counted as words that were detritus, stuff that shouldn’t count toward a blog’s word count.

That detritus included notes to myself about this post or that, lists of links to include in posts and the coding for the embedding of videos. So, in a ham-handed bit of statistical division – my statistics instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism would have winced – I took that average of 47,000-plus and sliced it down to 47,000.

Then I multiplied 47,000 times 51 – the number of filled Word files – and came up with 2,397,000. And that’s approximately the number of words I’ve written for this blog since early 2007.

Remember the detritus that includes notes to myself? There’s a little bit of that right at the top of each of the last twenty or so Word files. There’s a note reminding me that the width I use when I embed YouTube videos on the blog is 455 whatevers. That’s also where I keep examples of the three characters in the Danish alphabet that we do not have in the English alphabet – ø, æ, and å – in both lower and upper case. I also keep the entire Danish exclamation “Skål!” so I can post it on Facebook after the Minnesota Vikings win.

And there are four notes about blog posts. One of them reminds me that this year, I am rerunning the 2008 series First Friday – looking at the mad year of 1968 – only this time, it’s as First Wednesday. Another note reminds me that I should consider doing a blog post about the musical (and romantic) duo of Cymbal & Clinger. A third offers the Derek & The Dominos track “Keep On Growing” as a subject for one of my covers posts. And a fourth suggests the song “Guantanamera” as a topic for a similar post.

But I keep looking back at that number: 2,397,000. That’s a lot of words, sentences, paragraphs and posts, many of which were not nearly as good as I’d hoped they’d be.

So where do we go with that? There are about a hundred tracks in the RealPlayer with the word “words” in their titles. And after a quick scan of the titles possible for a tune, I’ve settled on “Encouraging Words” by Billy Preston, the title track from his 1970 album.

Everywhere & Nowhere

September 18th, 2018

If I were asked to name my ten favorite pieces from more than eleven years of blogging, this would be one of them. It was originally published on July 7, 2007, and it’s crossed my mind recently, so here it is.

It’s the roadhouse of dreams.

Where is it? It’s nowhere and it’s everywhere, depending on the season and the memories and hopes of those sitting inside.

If you look out the window during the baking summer, you might see the flat fields and arrow-straight roads of the Delta, the humid air vibrating like a steel guitar string. The melancholy of autumn might find you near a lake in the North Woods, with the maniac cry of the loon joined by the honks of the geese leaving you behind as they head home. In winter, the roadhouse – probably named Times Gone, but we’ll see – welcomes you in from the gloom and grit of some city’s aging industrial neighborhood. Maybe it’s Gary, Indiana, or someplace on Ohio’s Lake Erie shore. The spring? Well, I think we’re in the mountains of Wyoming, or at least a place where spring comes late, making its days all the more precious and the roadhouse itself brighter inside than the windows and the lights can account for.

This is no slick place with light-colored wood finished to the texture of silk. The wood here is dark – except in those places where the varnish has been worn away – and you can feel the grain through the stain. It’s honest wood with rough-edged comfort. You know that when you slide into one of the booths on the far side of the room. And you know it even more when you lay your hands on the bar, nodding as your fingers read the nicks and dents in the bar top like a blind man reads a good story.

The bar stools are just that: bar stools, not chairs on long legs. They’ve all been reupholstered at one time or another, but always with the same red leather and brass nails. Hook your feet on the timeworn rungs if you have to anchor yourself, and don’t lean back because all you’ll find is empty air. That’s okay, though. It’s always better to lean forward, elbows on the bar, especially if you’re lost in thought, lost in memories or just lost.

In the center of the place is a dance floor, not large but big enough, with a stage off to the left end. We’ll come back there later.

On the right end of the dance floor, as you step inside the place – it seems that Times Gone is the right name for the place – is a pool table under a shaded light fixture, and on the wall, two pinball machines set back-to-back. These are pinball machines, not computers on legs. They’re old, but they still work, and they still give out that satisfying, solid “thwack!” when you win a free game. Some days – or nights, for that matter – there aren’t a lot of sounds better than that one.

Just the other side of the pinball machines is a jukebox, a real mechanical jukebox with records in it. It’s packed with songs from before 1980 – a few after that time, but just a few. There’s lots of R&B from the Fifties and the Sixties, and one or two Al Green songs for the slow dances. You’ll find some rock, mostly the blues-based stuff. There are a few country records, some to dance to and some to cry along with. There’s also a little bit of pop, mostly because it brings smiles to the folks in the crowd, some for the memory and some for the irony.

And there’s the blues. From Chicago and the Delta. From Texas, Los Angeles and the Piedmont. You come into Times Gone with the blues, and we can find the right song for you. In fact, the day always starts with the blues, a fact we hope isn’t matched by life. Every morning at eleven, as Times Gone opens its door, the jukebox plays Muddy Water’s 1948 single “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” That’s not a comment on life; we just like the song.

There are a couple other songs you’ll hear every day. At five in the afternoon, the jukebox plays “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors. And just before we close the doors sometime in the early morning, Ringo Starr and his three friends bid us “Goodnight.”

We don’t rely entirely on the jukebox, as well stocked as it is. Remember the dance floor and the stage? Weekend nights, we’ve got live music. I suppose that Muddy and his old rival, Howlin’ Wolf, stop by now and then, since this is the roadhouse of dreams. And Brother Ray and Aretha must come by here too, every once in a while. But a lot of the time, the stage belongs to Delbert McClinton, a roadhouse singer if ever there was one. He’s got some records in the jukebox, to be sure, but there’s nothing like hearing him in person. The way he takes over the stage and holds the attention of the crowd on the floor, he could own the place.

It sure would be nice if somebody, somewhere, did.

Here’s a taste of Delbert McClinton on stage. “Going Back To Louisiana” is a track from the 2006 album Live From Austin TX, a release that offers McClinton’s 1982 performance on the Austin City Limits television show.

Edited slightly on reposting.

‘Do I Still Figure . . .’

September 14th, 2018

So, following up on last Saturday’s post, we’ve been checking out various versions of the tune we know now as “Do I Still Figure In Your Life.” We start with the original by the Honeybus, titled at the time “(Do I Figure) In Your Life.” Written by Pete Dello of the Honeybus, the tune was released on Deram in 1967:

I notice a couple of things right off the top: The strings – both in the introduction and behind the vocals – remind me strongly of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and of some of the things that George Martin was doing with the Beatles. And the diction carries a hint of Bob Dylan. Still, the record sounds very much of its time and is a pleasant listen. And according to the author of a website about the band “(Do I Figure) In Your Life” deserved better than it got in 1967 Britain and “should have been a huge hit but inexplicably missed the charts despite heavy airplay and good reviews.”

(Given that the preceding assessment comes from a fan page, some skepticism is likely in order. But it is a pretty good record and would not have sounded out of place on a U.S. station in, say, October 1967.)

The first to cover the tune, as we learned last Saturday, was British pop singer Dave Berry, whose version, as I noted last week, “was released in 1968 on Decca in the U.K. and on a London promo in the U.S., according to Discogs.” Taking the slightly baroque approach of the Honeybus a little further, Berry started his take on “Do I Still Figure In Your Life” with a harpsichord solo and returned to the instrument in between verses. It’s a sweet version of the tune but – beyond the harpsichord – unremarkable.

Then, as noted last Saturday, came Joe Cocker, whose version was no doubt the first I ever heard of the song. (I was digging into memories in the past few days, and I think I heard Cocker’s version in a dorm room at St. Cloud State sometime during the autumn of 1971, a couple of years after the track came out on Cocker’s 1969 album, With A Little Help From My Friends.)

Picking around in the listing at Second Hand Songs, we’ll dig into the shambling version released by an artist who styled himself Creepy John Thomas. An Aussie, he also called himself Johnny Driver and played with the Edgar Broughton Band, according to Discogs. His take on Pete Dello’s song reverted to the original title, “(Do I Figure) In Your Life” and was included on his 1969 album, Creepy John Thomas:

Then came – as noted last Saturday – Kate Taylor, followed by the occasional revisiting of the song over the years, more frequently in the 1970s and sporadically since then. I ran across a few versions at YouTube that weren’t listed at Second Hand Songs, including a bland version from Paul Carrack (Ace, Squeeze, Mike & The Mechanics) and a sterile version from Norwegian singer Karoline Krüger.

And maybe it’s because it was the first version I ever heard, but I come to the conclusion – having listened to about twenty takes on the song in the last week – that no one does it like Joe Cocker:

‘Love Just Comes And It Goes . . .’

September 12th, 2018

Having had some fun last week digging into the bottom portions of a late 1970 summer survey from the Twin Cities’ KDWB, I thought I’d move a year further back this week and do the same with a survey from WDGY, the other Twin Cities Top 40 station (which, as I’ve noted, I could not hear in St. Cloud.)

The top five records in the WDGY Star Survey forty-nine years ago today were:

“Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies
“Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan
“Commotion/Green River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Get Together” by the Youngbloods
“Hurt So Bad” by the Lettermen

That’s a great six records (although the easy listening vibe of “Hurts So Bad” might have put off folks who tuned to WDGY for rock). I’m still, after almost fifty years, not as familiar with “Commotion” as I am with “Green River,” and I doubt I’m the only one.

So what do we find at the bottom of the Star Survey?

“I’d Wait A Million Years” by the Grass Roots
“When I Die” by Mother lode
“That’s The Way Love Is” by Marvin Gaye
“I’m Gonna Make You Mine” by Lou Christie
“Oh What A Night” by the Dells

The notes at Oldiesloon helpfully tell us that the Dells’ record is a remake of the group’s 1956 hit, so that pulls that record from the list of any we might want to examine this morning. And we’ve spent what might be considered an inordinate amount of time over the years examining the pleasant memories and nostalgic pangs brought to the surface by “I’m Gonna Make You Mine.” I also loved the Grass Roots’ single, as their promise to wait to the end of time resonated with my circumstances as my junior year of high school began to take shape.

As to “When I Die” by Motherlode, I truly doubt that I’d ever heard it until sometime after I began to write this blog in early 2007.

I know I heard the Marvin Gaye version earlier than that, but only by about fifteen years. I was driving home late one night during the early 1990s and found myself at a convenience store, pumping gas into my Toyota at about eleven o’clock at night. I was on a main thoroughfare, but one wouldn’t have to venture too far to the north to find a neighborhood of questionable safety, so I was a bit nervous as the gasoline flowed into the tank and the numbers whirled on the pump.

When the pump clicked off, I finished my business and got into the car as quickly as I could. And as as I headed out of the convenience store’s lot and west on Thirty-Fifth Street, I heard a slinky intro of electric piano, bass and muffled drums coming from the car radio, tuned – as was almost always the case – to KTCZ-FM, Cities 97.

Then came a rattlesnake tambourine and finally the vocal: “Ahhhhhhhhh, baby! As the bitter tears fall from your eyes . . .”

“That’s Marvin,” I thought. “But this is nothing I’ve ever heard!”

Three blocks later, I pulled my Toyota into its parking space behind my apartment building and sat in the car, waiting for the end of the record. When it finished, I went inside and took down my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Singles from the shelf and verified that Gaye had recorded a song titled “That’s The Way Love Is.” I also learned that it had reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. (A later acquisition tells me that the record spent five weeks at No. 2 on the magazine’s R&B chart.)

I was nearly satisfied. So I picked up the phone and called the late-night deejay at Cities 97, something I’d done a few times when I had a similar question. He answered, and I asked “That was Marvin a few minutes ago, right?”

“Oh, yeah” came the answer.

I have no idea how I missed the record back then, but the surveys collected at the Airheads Radio Survey Archive and at Oldiesloon tell me that the record peaked on WDGY at No. 24 during the last week of September. From what I can tell, the collected KDWB surveys at ARSA are missing the final two weeks of September, but none of the surveys before or after that gap list the record, so if “That’s The Way Love Is” showed up in the KDWB survey, it was for two weeks at most.

So it’s not surprising that I hadn’t heard it back then.

Saturday Single No. 608

September 8th, 2018

I had another less than perfect night of sleep; I was up by four o’clock, reading news online with iTunes keeping me company. And along the way, I heard Kate Taylor’s “Do I Still Figure In Your Life.” It’s from her 1971 album Sister Kate, an album I shared here long ago.

It’s a song I’ve long enjoyed. I imagine the first version I ever heard of it was Joe Cocker’s, which was on his 1969 debut album, With A Little Help From My Friends. And I wondered where the song came from and how many versions of it there are.

Well, it was written by Brit Pete Dello and first recorded by his group, the Honeybus. It was released in the U.K. as “(Do I Figure) In Your Life?” on the Deram label in October 1967, according to Second Hand Songs. Covers followed, of course, first from Dave Berry, another Brit. His version was released in 1968 on Decca in the U.K. and on a London promo in the U.S., according to Discogs.

Joe Cocker came next, recording the song under the title we generally see: “Do I Still Figure In Your Life?” Then came another Brit, Samantha Jones, in 1970, and finally, the song crossed the ocean in 1971 for Kate Taylor’s version. Second Hand Songs lists seven more covers in the years since. (The website is probably not comprehensive, but as I’ve noted before, it’s a good place to start.)

Among those seven covers was another take on the song by its writer, an effort credited to Pete Dello & Friends on the 1971 album Into Your Ears. Also of note is a 1974 version of the tune by Ian Matthews on Some Days You Eat the Bear and Some Days the Bear Eats You.

We’ll likely dig a bit further sometime soon and listen to some of those versions, including the original by the Honeybus, but I think this morning we’ll stick to the cover that started this morning’s diversions. So here’s Kate Taylor’s “Do I Still Figure In Your Life,” today’s Saturday Single.

‘Let Me Run Down Your Fingers . . .’

September 7th, 2018

Looking back forty-eight years to the September 7, 1970, “6+30” survey from the Twin Cities’ KDWB, the top six records immediately start a playlist in my head:

“War” by Edwin Starr
“In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder
“Make It With You” by Bread
“25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago
“Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond

Decent records all, but I find things more interesting in the bottom six of that long-ago survey:

“Holy Man” by Diane Kolby
“Lay A Little Lovin’ On Me” by Robin McNamara
“All Right Now” by Free
“Soul Shake” by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends
“Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt
“Tell It All Brother” by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition

We’ve talked about the bottom three of those at one time or another here, and the one that grabs my attention this morning is the first entry in that list: “Holy Man.” Sitting at No. 31, it was new to the survey:

The record peaked at No. 12 on KDWB three weeks later, which is probably why I recall it. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the record, but when I saw it listed on that 1970 survey this morning, I remembered hearing it and liking it.

The record’s success at KDWB was an anomaly, as “Holy Man” made it to only No. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100. There were a few other stations around the country where the record did well, based on what’s available at the Airheads Radio Survey Archive. In Kansas City, “Holy Man” went to No. 11 on KHB’s “40 Star Super Hit Survey,” as it did on the “Big Thirty” at Salt Lake City’s KNAK. A few other stations saw the record peak in the top twenty. One of those was the Twin Cities’ WDGY, where it got to No. 19. (The highest ranking that the surveys at ARSA show for the record is a peak at No. 4 on 2SM in Sydney, Australia.)

“Holy Man” was the only charting single for Kolby, a native of Houston, Texas, although several others were released in the U.S. and elsewhere between 1970 and 1974. All but one of those singles ended upon her one released album, a self-titled effort that – oddly – was not released until 1973, three years after her one bit of chart success. The one non-album single listed at Discogs – “Ju Ju Woman” – is also pretty good.

Kolby died in 2016 at the age of 70. Her life and career are examined in a post from this past June at the blog Aquarium Drunkard.

First Wednesday: September 1968

September 5th, 2018

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

The month of September was a fairly quiet one in 1968, an intermission of sorts. As one looks at the listings of the month’s events at Wikipedia (which is where I start as I examine 1968), only six events are listed, and five of them are:

The African nation of Swazliand became independent on September 6. A September 11 plane crash in the French Mediterranean killed a prominent French general and ninety-four others. A tour of South Africa by England’s Marylebone Cricket Club was canceled September 17 because South Africans “refused to accept the presence” of Basil D’Oliveira, who was of African descent, on the Marylebone team. Marcelo Caetano became prime minister of Portugal on September 27. And a September 29 referendum in Greece gave more power to the ruling military junta.

The sixth event listed, however, becomes a bit more significant with a second look. On September 7, 1968, Wikipedia says, “150 women protest against the Miss America Pageant, as exploitative of women. It is one of the first large demonstrations of Second Wave Feminism.” (First Wave Feminism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, earned women in the U.S. and the U.K. the right to vote, Wikipedia reports in a different entry, adding that the term “First Wave” was coined retroactively during the 1970s.)

An interesting account of the 1968 protest in Atlantic City is posted at JoFreeman.com, the website of an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. She writes:

The 1968 protest originated with New York Radical Women, one of the earliest women’s liberation groups in the country. About 150 feminists from six cities joined them to show how all women were hurt by beauty competitions. They argued that the contest declared that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks by parading women around like cattle to show off their physical attributes. All women were made to believe they were inferior because they couldn’t measure up to Miss America beauty standards. Women’s liberation would ‘attack the male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression of women symbolized by the Pageant.’

The Atlanta City (sic) convention center opens onto a vast boardwalk between it and the beach. The large expanse of boards easily seen from the entrance makes it a great place for demonstrations. Women’s liberation took advantage of this to stage several guerilla theater actions. A live sheep was crowned Miss America. Objects of female oppression – high heeled shoes, girdles, bras, curlers, tweezers – were tossed into a Freedom Trash Can. A proposal to burn the can’s contents was scuttled when the police said that a fire would pose a risk to the wooden boardwalk. Women sang songs that parodied the contest and the idea of selling women’s bodies: ‘Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.’ A tall, Miss America puppet was auctioned off.

Sixteen feminists bought tickets to the evening’s entertainment. They smuggled in a banner reading WOMEN’S LIBERATION. Sitting in the front row of the balcony, they unfurled it as the outgoing Miss America made her farewell speech, while shouting ‘Freedom for Women,’ and ‘No More Miss America.’ The pageant continued as though nothing had happened. This action was quickly followed by the release of two stink bombs on the floor of the hall. All protestors were removed from the hall; five were arrested, but later released.

The outrageousness of challenging the Miss America icon brought the press out in droves, putting women’s liberation on the front pages all over the country. From this, women learned that a new feminist movement was emerging and flocked to join.

The 1968 demonstration also saddled women’s liberation with the myth of bra burning. Forevermore the press would repeat that women burned their bras. They never remembered where this was supposed to have occurred, let alone that it never happened.

One could argue, I think, that of all the events of 1968, that cluster of demonstrations at Atlantic City had the greatest long-term impact, starting with American society and Western culture. Those demonstrations certainly caught folks’ attention. I recall the derision and bafflement my pals and I and our parents expressed toward the women who dared to interrupt an American institution like the Miss America pageant with their complaints and demands concerning things we’d never questioned.

But those complaints and demands triggered a slow process in much of the industrialized world. My friends and I and our parents watched in the coming years as our world was changed by feminist ideas, and most of us changed along with it. As a historian of sorts, I know how things have changed over the past forty years, but I’m of utterly the wrong gender to truly gauge the long-term impact of what those women began at Atlantic City in September of 1968.

So I turned to my wife, the Texas Gal, whose mother was a working mom in the 1960s, when there weren’t many such moms around. “She was a feminist by necessity,” the Texas Gal says of her mother. That functional feminism, the Texas Gal says, “made me always assume that I would work and that I would be able to fend for myself.”

Beyond her mom’s example, the Texas Gal adds: “The other thing that feminism did, long-term, was make it possible to be a career woman and still be a woman. For a long time, a career woman had to act like a man. Now a career woman can act like a woman: she can wear jewelry and dress femininely, she can like animals and quilting and cooking, and she can still be respected in the boardroom.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting to take my customary look at the Top Fifteen records of the time and see the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” riding at No. 1 for the fourth week in a row on September 7, 1968 (with one more week at No. 1 yet to come). While writers Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati and the rest of the Rascals had their hearts in the right places, it’s worth noting that after singing “People everywhere just wanna be free,” the Rascals later proclaim, “It’s a natural situation for a man to be free,” with no mention of women. One wonders if Cavaliere and Brigati would be so gender-specific were they writing today.

Exclusionary language aside, “People Got To Be Free” is a great single, and it sat atop a good set of singles. Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen from September 7, 1968:

“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Light My Fire” by José Feliciano
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley
“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin
“1, 2, 3, Red Light” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
“You’re All I Need To Get By” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“Stay In My Corner” by the Dells
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge
“Hush” by Deep Purple
“Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues
“Love Makes A Woman” by Barbara Acklin

Actually, that’s not just a good set of singles, that’s a great set. Feliciano’s Latin-inflected “Light My Fire” was an eye-opener, and there’s some solid soul/R&B with the sides by Aretha, Marvin & Tammi, Archie Bell and his boys, the Dells and Barbara Acklin.

And there’s some good rock, too, with Steppenwolf, the Doors, Cream, Vanilla Fudge (the pace of the group’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is about as glacial as rock gets) and Deep Purple (covering a song written by countryish singer-songwriter Joe South).

The only bit of froth that might have made me push the button for another station is “1, 2, 3, Red Light.” The Vogues’ single is pretty light, yeah, but, as I’ve written before, it’s one of those songs that remind me how I felt about a certain young lady (and it doesn’t seem possible that it’s been forty years).

Let’s see if the Billboard top ten albums from the first week of September provided listening as good as the radio did that week:

Waiting For The Sun by the Doors
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Realization by Johnny Rivers
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel

That’s a list that holds up pretty well forty years later. The Johnny Rivers’ album is, as I’ve related here before, one of my favorites and a resident in my all-time Top Ten Albums list. Nothing else here quite approaches that level, but the two records by Cream are superb, as are the albums by Aretha, Feliciano, the Experience and Simon & Garfunkel.

Steppenwolf is pretty good, and the Rascals’ record is a solid collection of their hits (most of which came from the years when the group was called the Young Rascals). And I have fewer problems with Waiting For The Sun than I do with most other albums by the Doors. (It ranks second to Morrison Hotel for me.)

The album I’m sharing today never got to those heights when it came out in 1968, but to me – as I listen in 2008 – it provides an aural landscape that captures that strange, tumultuous, freaky and tragic year as well as anything can.

Sweetwater was an odd band, but that fit right in with the times. As All-Music Guide notes: “An unusual rock group in both the size of their lineup (which numbered eight), the instrumentation employed, and the eclectic scope of their material, Sweetwater didn’t quite get the first-class songs or breaks necessary to make them widely known. Lead singer Nansi Nevens was backed not just by conventional guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, but also flute . . . conga . . . and cello.”

The group’s first release was all over the stylistic map as well. To cite AMG again: “Their self-titled debut album was the kind of release that could have only been the product of the late ’60s, with the music flying off in all directions, and a major label willing to put it out. Sweetwater blended Californian psychedelia with jazzy keyboards and a classical bent, especially in the flute and cello, but did not cohere into a readily identifiable aesthetic, or write exceptional songs, although they were okay. Perhaps Reprise was willing to give such a hard to market and classify band a shot, figuring that in the midst of psychedelic rock scaling the charts that would have seemed unimaginably weird just a couple of years before, who knew what would sell now?”

All of that is true, yet I find a charm in the album as it wanders all over the landscape. I particularly like the opener, an extended take on the traditional “Motherless Child.” Other highlights for me are “Here We Go Again,” with its swirling vocal and harpsichord-like keyboard; “Come Take A Walk” with its mellow flute (and its hippie-ish lyric, too); “My Crystal Spider,” with its odd shifts in style; and “Why, Oh Why” with its frenetic violin.

The only track that’s not particularly complelling, actually, is “What’s Wrong,” a classic 1960s litany of the ails of society, but then, overt preaching is never as fun to listen to as is subtle persuasion.

Overall, Sweetwater is a pretty good listen, if a bit derivative: listeners will notice a very clear sonic resemblance to Jeffeson Airplane. Sweetwater’s not as good as the Airplane, of course, but not many bands were. And Sweetwater was plagued by bad luck: In December 1969, four months after the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock, lead singer Nevins was in an auto accident. Her vocal cords were damaged and she had severe brain injuries; she was in a coma for weeks and needed therapy for years. The band’s second album – for which Nevins had recorded a couple of tracks before the accident – was completed without her and did not sell well. After a third album in 1971, the band broke up.

AMG notes: “The surviving trio of Nevins, keyboardist Alex Del Zoppo and bassist Fred Herrera reunited Sweetwater in 1997, and two years later – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Woodstock – cable network VH1 produced and broadcast a film about the group, with Felicity co-star Amy Jo Johnson cast as Nansi Nevins; the picture sparked a considerable resurgence of interest in the group, and that same year Rhino released Cycles, a limited-edition retrospective of their work for Reprise.”

Tracks:
Motherless Child
Here We Go Again
For Pete’s Sake
Come Take A Walk
What’s Wrong
In A Rainbow
My Crystal Spider
Rondeau
Two Worlds
Through An Old Storybook
Why Oh Why

Sweetwater – Sweetwater [1968]

(The link is to a YouTube playlist of the full album.)

Happy Labor Day!

September 3rd, 2018

I wasn’t in the world of work long compared to most of my contemporaries, just until I was 49, when some major health issues confronted me. And – except for some janitorial work the summer after high school – I never did much manual labor. My work came at a desk or in front of a classroom.

So Labor Day isn’t really mine. It belongs to the folks who work harder jobs than I ever had, and to the people who organized the unions, giving time and sometimes blood to help working folks thrive.

Here’s “Union Man” by the Cate Brothers. It went to No. 24 in 1975.

Well, it’s six a.m., I’m out on the job
Working like a fool for my pay
A big man walks by with a smile
Says you got to go on strike today

Hey, hey, Mr. Union Man
How am I gonna pay my dues?
Or the landlord or the doctor?
How am I getting new shoes?

Well, I know I need to help to get that raise
There’s one thing I don’t like
Tell me how can I feed my hungry family
If you say I’m going on strike

Hey, hey, Mr. Union Man
How am I gonna pay my dues?
Owe more money than I can pay
Looks like I’m bound to lose

Well, I don’t see how I’m going to get ahead
Seem like there ain’t no way
Well, he said don’t worry, ’cause I understand
Won’t you try to see things my way?

Hey, hey, Mr. Union Man
Thank you for the helping hand
Hey, hey, Mr. Union Man
So glad you understand