Archive for the ‘Covers’ Category

‘Grey’ or ‘Gray’?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2020

Here’s one of those questions that writers ponder every once in a while: Is it “grey” or “gray”?

If I had a copy of the Associated Press stylebook here, I imagine it would say “gray.” For many years, in my own writing, I used “grey,” probably just to be contrarian. And, in a typographical sense, I think it looks better. I think, though, that my usage has shifted toward “gray” over the past few years, but how consistently, I’m not sure.

But which is preferred? And what is the difference, if any? The folks at the Grammarly website say that “gray” is preferred in the U.S., while “grey” is more common in other English-speaking countries. The website goes on to say:

Both gray and grey come from the Old English word grǽg. Over time, many different spellings of the word developed. The Middle English poem “The Owl and the Nightingale,” which was written in the twelfth or thirteenth century, uses the spelling “greie.” The fourteenth-century translation of the French poem “Roman de la Rose” uses the spelling “greye.” “Graye” can be found in the poem “Piers Plowman” written by William Langland in the second half of the fourteenth century. Examples of the spellings we use today can also be found in Middle English literature.

By the eighteenth century, “grey” had become the more common spelling, even though the legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson thought that “gray” was a better version. In the nineteenth century, English dictionaries followed Johnson’s cue and prescribed “gray” as the correct version, but to no avail. By the twentieth century, “grey” had become the accepted spelling everywhere except in the United States.

So let’s look at “grey” and “gray” on the digital shelves.

First, there’s the song “Grey Goose” as recorded by Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet for the Victor label in June 1940.

“Grey Goose” is a traditional tune that tells the tale of a preacher who hunted a goose that was impossible to kill, to cook or to eat. Wikipedia says the implication of the song is that the preacher had not properly observed the Sabbath (although the website notes as well “there are other folk songs which may or may not have existed before this song . . . that have a similar theme of the grey goose being indestructible.”)

I found the version by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet on the CD Leadbelly: Take This Hammer, one of the eleven CDs in the series titled When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History Of Rock & Roll. The series was released by RCA Victor and Bluebird in the early years of this century.

(A note on the spelling of Huddie Ledbetter’s performing name: For many years, since I first heard of the man when I was maybe in junior high school, I had seen it spelled as one word, “Leadbelly.” In recent years, I have read that Ledbetter actually spelled it as two words: “Lead Belly.” That’s the spelling used on his grave stone and it’s what Wikipedia uses.)

Here’s how Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet sang “Grey Goose.”

Almost fifty years later, Sweet Honey In The Rock recorded the song for the 1988 compilation A Vision Shared, a Folkways release that offered covers of songs written by Woody Guthrie and written by or associated with Lead Belly. But the song was titled, for some reason, “Gray Goose.” Here’s what Sweet Honey In The Rock did with it:

“Grey” or “gray,” take your pick. Either one works in this case.

‘Delia’s Gone . . .’

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020

Who was Delia?

Her name was Delia Green. Here’s part of what Wikipedia has to say about her:

Delia Green (1886 – December 25, 1900) was a 14-year-old African-American murder victim who has been identified as the likely inspiration for several well-known traditional American songs, usually known by the titles “Delia” and “Delia’s Gone.”

According to contemporaneous reports published in Georgia newspapers, Green was shot by 15-year-old Mose (or Moses) Houston late on Christmas Eve, 1900, in the Yamacraw neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia, and died at 3:00 a.m. on Christmas Day. Houston, the newspapers implied, had been involved in a sexual relationship with Green for several months. The shooting took place at the home of Willie West, who chased down Houston after the shooting and turned him over to the city police.

Green’s murder and Houston’s trial in the spring of 1901 were reported in the Savannah Morning News and the Savannah Evening Press. Although Houston reportedly had confessed to the murder at the time of his arrest, at his trial he claimed the shooting was accidental. Other witnesses, however, testified that Houston had become angry after Green called him ‘a son of a bitch.”

Green was buried in an unmarked grave in Laurel Grove Cemetery South in Savannah.

The earliest recorded version of any of the songs inspired by Green’s fate is listed at Second Hand Songs as “Delhia,” a 1939 Decca recording by Jimmie Gordon and His Vip Vop Band. I wouldn’t be startled if there were earlier recordings. (Wikipedia notes that in 1928, folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon reported to the Library of Congress that he had traced the songs back to a murder in Savannah and that he had interviewed both Green’s mother and the police officer who took Houston into custody.)

Johnny Cash recorded “Delia’s Gone” in 1962 for the album The Sound Of Johnny Cash and re-recorded the song in 1993 for the album American Recordings. Here’s how he told the tale the second time:

Delia, oh, Delia
Delia all my life
If I hadn’t shot poor Delia
I’d have had her for my wife
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

I went up to Memphis
And I met Delia there
Found her in her parlor
And I tied her to her chair
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

She was low-down and trifling
And she was cold and mean
Kind of evil make me want to
Grab my sub-machine
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

First time I shot her
I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

But jailer, oh, jailer
Jailer, I can’t sleep
’Cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

So if your woman’s devilish
You can let her run
Or you can bring her down and do her
Like Delia got done
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone
Delia’s gone, one more round
Delia’s gone

Saturday Single No. 673

Saturday, January 11th, 2020

I’ve got a bunch of music stored on my phone, stuff that I put there a year ago so the phone could be my mp3 player while I was in the hospital, and every once in a while, as I take a rest, I lay the phone near the pillow and let the music lull me to sleep.

Except not all of the tunes on the phone are lulling. The other day I was roused when Long John Baldry began graveling his way through “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield,” the Randy Newman tune Baldry covered on his 1971 album It Ain’t Easy.

I wrote briefly about the song in 2008, quoting the assessment of Newman’s original recording of the song found at All-Music Guide:

A sinewy ballad built around a fine bottleneck guitar riff, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” is a love song, basically, but the slightly demented lyric content is what gives it the edge.

Slightly demented? Well, yeah. Take a read:

Let’s burn down the cornfield,
Let’s burn down the cornfield,
And we can listen to it burn.

You hide behind the oak tree,
You hide behind the oak tree,
Stay out of danger ’till I return.

Oh, it’s so good on a cold night
To have a fire burnin’ warm and bright.

You hide behind the oak tree,
You hide behind the oak tree,
Stay out of danger ’till I return.

Let’s burn down the cornfield,
Let’s burn down the cornfield,
And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.

At the time, more than eleven years ago, I had access to two covers of the song, those by Baldry and by Alex Taylor, and I noted that I planned to soon rip to mp3s Etta James’ version of the tune from her 1974 album Come A Little Closer.

Well, I must have done that, because James’ version of the song is now in the RealPlayer stacks, as are additional versions by Lou Rawls, Sam Samudio and the Walkabouts. There are others out there, but we’re not going to look any further afield this morning. Instead, we’re just going to make Etta James’ take on “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield” today’s Saturday Single.

‘Underneath The Harlem Moon . . .’

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

I was parked at my computer, idly clicking from one track to another in iTunes, as I sometimes do, just seeing what there was among the 3,900-some tracks, when up popped one I’d not really noticed before: Rhiannon Giddens’ take on the 1930s tune “Underneath the Harlem Moon” from her 2015 EP Factory Girl.

Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs
Rhythm in their hips and in their lips and in their eyes
Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
We don’t live in cabins like the old folks used to do
Our cabin is a penthouse up on St. Nicholas Avenue
Underneath that Harlem moon

We just live for dancing
We’re never blue or forlorn
Ain’t no sin to laugh and grin
That’s why we schwarzes were born

We shout, “Hallelujah!” every time we’re feeling low
And every sheik is dressed up like a Georgia gigolo
White folks call it madness but I call it hi-de-ho
Underneath that Harlem moon

Once we wore bandanas, now we wear Parisian hats
Once we were barefoot, now we’re sporting shoes and spats
Once we were Republicans but now we’re Democrats
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
All we pick is numbers and that includes you white folks too
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath the Harlem moon

We just thrive on dancing
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh and grin. Ha! Let the landlord in
That’s why house rent parties were born

We also drink our gin, smoke our reefer, when we’re feeling low
Then we’re ready to step out and take charge of any so-and-so
Don’t stop for law, no traffic, when we’re raring to go
Underneath the Harlem moon
Underneath the Harlem moon

I wondered for a bit about Giddens’ purpose in recording the song, written in the 1930s by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon and first recorded in 1932 by Howard Joyner. And I’m still wondering.

The most prominent version of the song may be the truncated version Randy Newman included on his 1972 album 12 Songs. It’s been released a few other times as well – mostly in the 1930s and a couple of times in the 1980s before Giddens came along with her version, according to Second Hand Songs. Not listed there is a performance by Ethel Waters in a 1933 film titled Rufus Jones For President (starring a young Sammy Davis Jr. as the presidential candidate).

Was Giddens – who is one of my favorite musical discoveries in the years since I began blogging in 2007 – reclaiming heritage, as she is wont to do? Maybe so. It seems to me that Giddens, with her clear interest in bringing the musical past into the present – from her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to her current solo work – is one of the few performers who could get away with performing “Under The Harlem Moon.”

Questions? Comments?

‘She’s Lost The Sun . . .’

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

When I explored the Billboard Easy Listening chart from fifty years ago in a post here last week, many of the top fifteen records that I highlighted were among those I was hearing on the Top 40 at the time. That’s not surprising, of course. Crossover between the two charts was common. (I don’t know if that’s the case today. My interest in the Top 40 fades somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. I’m old.)

One of the records on that Easy Listening chart from 1969 that caught my eye as I wrote was the Guess Who’s “Undun.” It was one of my two or three favorite records from the Canadian group during my high school days, topped only, I’d guess, by “No Time” (which did end up on my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox). And until it showed up on that long-ago Easy Listening chart last week, it hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. Nor had the larger catalog of the Guess Who. (Even though about ten of the group’s singles are in my iPod, they evidently don’t pop up often enough that I take notice.)

So I spent some time the other day checking the digital shelves for Guess Who material and ripping and sorting the 2003 two-CD Anthology released by RCA/BMG Heritage. I suppose I should just pop the CDs into the car’s player the next few times I head out on errands or drop them into the large stereo set that sits not far from my desk here in the EITW studios. But I just listened to a few of the resulting mp3s, “Undun” included.

“Undun” was, according to the listings in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, the B-side of “Laughing,” which entered the Hot 100 in July of 1969 and peaked at No. 10. “Undun” followed its A-side into the Hot 100 in mid-October and was in the chart for ten weeks, reaching No. 22. On the Easy Listening chart, it peaked at No. 15, which is where it was in the fifty-year-old chart explored here last week. (It was the only record the Guess Who ever got into the Easy Listening chart.)

And in the Twin Cities, it looks like the record peaked at No. 22 on KDWB, where I got a good share of my Top 40 fix. So I let some memories wash over me as I listened to it the other day; the autumn of 1969 was a pretty good time.

And then I wondered about real easy listening versions of the song, recordings from folks like Ferrante & Teicher or Ray Conniff. Well, those folks didn’t record the tune, according to the information from Second Hand Songs, but I did find a version of the tune that scratched my easy listening itch: Hugo Montenegro included a cover of “Undun” on his 1970 album Colours Of Love.

‘Teach Me Tonight’

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

The standard “Teach Me Tonight” had popped up here a few times over the years before the 1954 version by Dinah Washington became last Saturday’s featured single. Back in 2013, as I looked at records that sat at No. 22 on February 2 over the years, I wrote:

At No. 22 in that long-ago [1955] chart, we find the DeCastro Sisters with their first Hot 100 appearance and the first appearance in that chart of the classic “Teach Me Tonight,” a tune written in 1953 by Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn. The DeCastro Sisters, who were born in Cuba, weren’t the first to record the song – jazz singer Janet Brace was – but the DeCastros’ version went to No. 2, making it the best-charting of the more than sixty recordings of the tune since the mid-1950s. (The most recent version of the song to chart came from Al Jarreau [No. 70] in 1982.)

And Phoebe Snow’s version of the tune from 1976 came up during as I reminisced about the jukebox that got many of my quarters during time spent in the snack bar at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center. (Snow’s version was released on a single but did not chart.)

But that’s about it. And Second Hand Songs tells me that there are at least 251 versions of the tune out there to explore. We’ll start that exploration today with the original version by Janet Brace.

And we start with some confusion. A note at Wikipedia mentions Brace’s recording of the song entering “the Billboard chart on October 23, 1954, and eventually reaching No. 23.” But neither Brace’s version nor Brace herself are listed in Joel Whitburn’s Pop Hits: Singles & Albums, 1940-1954. Two versions of the song are listed in the book: The above-mentioned No. 2 version by the DeCastro Sisters and Jo Stafford’s cover, which hit the magazine’s charts in November 1954 and peaked at No. 15.

Anyway, here’s Brace’s original version:

And, while we’ll dig into names familiar and not in upcoming posts, I thought I’d close this post with a foreign language version (since I tend to like those). So here’s one in Czech: “Vím už co to znamená” by Eva Pilarová (which offers the chorus in English). It was released – according to Second Hand Songs – in 1961.

‘The Room Was Humming Harder . . .’

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Sometime recently – and I cannot provide anything more specific – a television show I was watching with the Texas Gal used for its background music Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Hearing it reminded me of this piece; it ran here twelve years ago this week. It’s been condensed and revised a little bit.

It was the summer of 1967, and I was doing my normal eight-week stint in summer school, an enrichment program designed to provide kids a chance to learn things they wouldn’t be exposed to during the school year. So, just as I had for the nine months preceding, I spent another two months hauling myself every day to the bus stop a block north of our house and riding the two miles to South Junior High for mornings of enrichment.

On one of my rides home during that summer, someone had a radio on the bus tuned to one of the two Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations, almost certainly KDWB. This might have been a regular thing, music in the back of the bus, but I’m not sure. What I am certain of is that I listened with the other kids that day as the radio played the strangest-sounding song any of us had maybe ever heard.

It began with a ponderous and spooky organ solo, with drums and cymbals providing punctuation. And then a reedy voice entered: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ’cross the floor . . .” It was, of course, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

We looked at each other, then back at the radio as the voice went on to tell a surreal tale in a setting that combined the ancient world with the medieval, although I doubt that any of us could place it that accurately back then; we just knew it wasn’t in our time, what with vestal virgins and the miller’s tale.

What did it mean? We had no idea, but it sure was strange . . . and cool. We liked it a lot, even I, who was still a couple of years away from digging very deeply into pop and the Top 40. Over the years, the meaning of the words – written by Keith Reid – has been assessed maybe way too many times. At its website, Procol Harum provides a link to a discussion of the lyrics, where listeners and fans – who seem to call themselves “Palers” – indulge themselves in deep and far-fetched theorizing.

The last word on the lyrics, it would seem, comes from the top of that page of theories, where one finds organist Matthew Fisher’s comment from an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, ‘I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.’ I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great . . . that’s all they have to do.”

The song was so odd, so different from anything on radio at the time, that beyond its lyrics, it spawned another discussion: Where did the music come from? Was it a lift from a classical piece? If so, which one? (Something by Bach was always considered most likely.)

I recall reading a piece about the song that included a quotation from a fellow who at the time was a classical music critic for a London newspaper. He said that he and a colleague spent an entire morning whistling the melody from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” back and forth to each other before deciding that it probably wasn’t Bach but a theme that sounded very much like his work.

And that’s pretty much the case. At the Procol Harum website, there’s an excerpt from a radio interview with Fisher in which he notes that the song certainly refers to two Bach pieces but is nevertheless an original work. Those pieces are “Air for the G String” and the choral piece titled in English “Sleepers, Awake!” (For those so inclined, the Procol Harum website also provides a link to Bach expert Bernard S. Greenberg’s formal analysis of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its links to the two Bach pieces.)

Of course, the other bus riders and I didn’t know all that as we listened for the first time to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on that bus carrying us home from summer school. It was just a cool song. And it still is. It’s also a popular song for cover versions: The website Second Hand Songs lists more than 170 covers by folks ranging from Noel Harrison, Flash Cadillac and R.B. Greaves to Annie Lennox, Bonnie Tyler and the Canadian Brass. (There are also several versions with the lyrics in French, Finnish, German and Swedish that I know I’m going to check out.)

Here’s Greaves’ version. It was released as an Atco single in late 1970 and spent two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 82. I like it.

The Sound Of Sorrow

Friday, June 28th, 2019

The forlorn melody of “None But The Lonely Heart,” Wikipedia tells us, was written in late 1869 when Piotr Tchaikovsky created a set of six romances for voice and piano. The lyrics came, the website says, from “Lev Mei’s poem ‘The Harpist’s Song,’ which in turn was translated from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

Here’s the English translation that gives the piece its familiar title:

None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted
Far from joy and gladness
Heaven’s boundless arch I see
Spread out above me
O what a distance drear to one
Who loves me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
My senses fail
A burning fire
Devours me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness

I first came across the song, as was the case with so many tunes, through Al Hirt, who included it on his 1965 album That Honey Horn Sound:

Hirt’s take is evocative enough, though I think his improvisations take away from the sadness that the title and the lyrics imply. And I think the background vocals of the Anita Kerr Singers make the final moments of the track sound almost triumphant with what a long-ago teaching colleague of mine called an “MGM ending.” (I certainly didn’t verbalize those thoughts back in 1965 when I heard the track for the first time, but I do recall that the second half of the track didn’t pull me in like the opening portions did, and I wondered why.)

The song has popped up over the years, and I’ve always liked it. But even though I’ve known for more than fifty years that the melody came from Tchaikovsky, I’d never thought much about the piece. Even with all my gathering of music over the past twenty years, only three other versions showed up on the digital shelves: Instrumental versions by violinist Isaac Stern and easy listening maestro Franck Pourcel and a turgid vocal version by Frank Sinatra (from his 1959 album No One Cares, which is a hard listen).

Then, just more than a year ago – and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about this – the Texas Gal and I watched the finale of the FX series The Americans, the tale – set in the 1980s – of two married Russian KGB agents sent to live in the United States as Americans, working covertly for the Soviet Union. In that finale, the two agents face arrest by U.S. authorities and flee. The last portion of their trip home is by car through Eastern Europe and the western portions of the Soviet Union, much of it shot from above.

The music backing that sequence is an orchestral version of “None But The Lonely Heart.” I recognized it from the first notes. (And if I recall things correctly, I gasped as those first notes aired, prompting a “What?” from the Texas Gal. I just shook my head, choosing not to explain at the moment.) As the journey and the episode and the series ended that evening, I thought the use of Tchaikovsky’s piece was a brilliant touch.

Afterward, I spent some time searching for the version of the tune used in the show. It turned out to be a performance by violinist Takako Nishizaki with Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra; it was included on a 2001 album – conducted by Slovak director Peter Breiner – titled Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart with the subtitle “Favourite Songs for Violin and Orchestra.” And, as it should be, it’s the sound of sorrow:

‘You May Be High . . .’

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

When the Rolling Stones recorded “You Got To Move” and released it on Sticky Fingers in 1971 (with the title offered as “You Gotta Move”), they credited the song to Fred McDowell, a Tennessee-based farmer and blues singer who’d somehow been given the name of Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was not an unreasonable decision, as McDowell had recorded the tune in 1965 for his second album on the Arhoolie label, which was released a year later and listed him as the song’s writer.

Here’s that version by McDowell:

(It’s worth noting that McDowell was an anomaly in the blues revival of the late 1950s and the 1960s: He’d never recorded before, while many of the blues artists celebrated during that revival had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether that made McDowell’s previously unrecorded music more “authentic” – as I’ve seen written in at least a couple of places – is for others to judge. It was certainly new to listeners, and, despite McDowell’s frequent use of an electric guitar, clearly linked to the Delta tradition.)

But McDowell did not write the song. Second Hand Songs lists the song as “traditional,” noting four recordings that predate McDowell’s 1965 recording. (McDowell’s 1965 recording is not listed at all; his 1969 live version with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers is listed, another reminder that as useful as the website is, it’s not complete.)

Those four earlier listed recordings came from the Willing Four in 1944, the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones) in 1947, Elder Charles Beck & His Religion In Rhythm in 1949, and Blind Gary Davis with Sonny Terry in 1953. One can assume two things, I think: There were other recordings as well before McDowell recorded his 1965 version, and the song no doubt predates the Willing Four’s version. By how much, who knows?

And I’m going to make a third assumption: That crediting the song’s creation to McDowell on his 1966 album was an error by someone at Arhoolie. McDowell would certainly have known that he’d learned the song elsewhere, and everything I’ve read about McDowell tells me that he was an unassuming, almost humble man. I have my doubts that he’d have claimed the song as his.

(At Second Hand Songs, “You Got To Move” is called “traditional,” and on the CD version I have of Sticky Fingers, it’s credited to McDowell and Davis. I don’t know what credits there are on more recent versions of the CD or the LP.)

McDowell recorded the song at least a couple more times: The previously mentioned 1969 recording with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers for an album titled Amazing Grace, and in a 1971 performance in New York City that was released as a live album two years later.

There are, of course, other covers out there, some by artists I know and others by artists unfamiliar to me: The Party Boys, Mike Cooper & Ian A. Anderson, Mick Taylor, Herman Alexander, the Radiators, Corey Harris, Jorma Kaukonen, Townes Van Zandt, Cassandra Wilson, Aerosmith, and Koerner, Ray & Glover are just some of them.

Most of those are faithful to the Delta sound of McDowell’s version; some of them reach back to what I assume are the song’s Gospel origins; and some are hybrids. Here’s one of the latter, the version offered by Sista Monica Parker on her 2008 album Sweet Inspirations.

‘You Gotta Move’

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

I was going to write this morning about Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Rolling Stones and covers of the blues tune “You Got To Move,” but I’m getting a late start to the day. So I’m just going to throw out a preview. Here’s a remastered version of what the Stones did with the tune – they titled it “You Gotta Move” – on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, a track that intrigued me during my early college days.