No. 46, Forty-Six Years Ago

March 19th, 2021

Looking for a quick Friday fix, we’re playing another game of Symmetry, this time looking back to 1975 and the Billboard Hot 100 that was released on March 22 of that year. We’ll check out the top two records of the week and then see what was sitting at No. 46 in that chart from forty-six years ago.

Sitting in the top two spots were two pretty good records: “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli at No. 1 and “Lady Marmalade (Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi)” by LaBelle. The latter made my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox, and maybe the Franki Valli record should have, too. Coincidentally, I’ve heard both of these this week on the Seventies cable channel the Texas Gal plays as she’s working on jigsaw puzzles.

But what’s at No. 46? Well, it’s a lesser Harry Chapin record: “I Wanna Learn A Love Song,” pulled from his album Verities & Balderdash. It was the follow-up on the charts to “Cat’s In The Cradle,” which had gone to No. 1 in December 1974 (though “What Made America Famous” had been released between the two records and had not hit the charts).

When I saw the title, I did not recall the record, but five seconds into listening, I remembered the tale of the itinerant musician who wins another man’s wife with his guitar and his songs. The record didn’t go much higher on the Hot 100, peaking at No. 42, but it went to No. 7 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart.

‘The Ship That Sailed The Moon . . .’

March 17th, 2021

I woke this morning (earlier than I’d have liked, due to feline interference) with “An American Tune” – the Paul Simon song – running through my head:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a fried who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest

Taken from the album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the track was released as a single in November 1973 and went to No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. I’ve read over the years that the song’s stately, elegant music reflected America’s Shaker tradition, but now I notice that in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn says Simon based the tune on the German classical piece “Oh Sacred Heart” (originally “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”), credited to Johann Sebastian Bach.

Wikipedia, however, notes that “Oh Sacred Heart” was actually the text of the German hymn, which was later paired with the melody that Simon uses. That melody, “Passion Chorale,” was written by German composer Hans Leo Hassler and was later harmonized by Bach (who used the resulting composition in several of his works, including his St Matthew Passion).

So, Hassler and Bach get credit for the melody, but the words are all Simon’s. Here’s how it sounded on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon:

After I woke with “Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower/We come on the ship that sailed the moon” running through my head,” I did two things: As I fed the cats, I tried to remember any dream I might have been having that could have brought that lyric into my head, but I failed.

And then I checked to see how long it had been since I’d mentioned the song here. It turns out that in more than fourteen years, “An American Tune” has never been mentioned here. Not once. I know I thought about writing about the song at various times in the four years just past and then decided against it; the words were cutting too closely to my heart. But today it seemed to be about time the song got some attention.

So, there it is, and it might be useful to remember that when Simon released the song as a single, in November 1973, the U.S. was hip-deep in Watergate and heading into a recession that would last a year-and-a-half. An uncertain hour, indeed.

Saturday Single No. 728

March 13th, 2021

It’s been a while since we played “Symmetry” here, so we’re going to pull up the Billboard Hot 100 from March 13, 1971, and check out what record was at No. 50 exactly fifty years ago.

We’ll start, as we customarily do, with the Top Ten:

“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds
“Me & Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
“For All We Know” by the Carpenters
“Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” by the Temptations
“She’s A Lady” by Tom Jones
“Mama’s Pearl” by the Jackson 5
“Proud Mary” by Ike & Tina Turner
“Have You Ever Seen The Rain/Hey Tonight” by CCR
“Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted” by the Partridge Family
“If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot

At the time, I was heading into my last few months of high school, and I got my radio fixes mostly from WJON down across the railroad tracks in the hours before bedtime and from WLS when I went to bed. The radio was pulled right up to the edge of my nightstand, and I’d keep the volume down low enough that the music coming from the Chicago giant would lull me to sleep. The Twin cities KDWB supplied daytime tunes, but that happened infrequently.

Nine of those eleven were familiar back then. I think I may have heard the Partridge Family record at the time, as it was vaguely familiar when I came across it on an anthology in the mid-1990s. If I ever heard “Mama’s Pearl” in 1971, it was either not frequently enough to register or loud enough to wake me up as I slid toward sleep. The only times I recall hearing it have come in the fourteen years I’ve been writing this blog.

The other nine, though, are lodged in my memory, and two of them – the Janis Joplin and Gordon Lightfoot records – are among my favorites and have burrowed deep inside. (Just yesterday, I was down in my corner of the family room working on baseball statistics while the Texas Gal was working on a jigsaw puzzle upstairs with one of the music channels keeping her company. I was only vaguely aware of the sounds of “Bobby McGee” coming down the stairs as I bent over a stat sheet, but my hands knew, as I suddenly realized I was playing air piano and air organ during the long instrumental break at the end of the record.)

I used to love the Turners’ “Proud Mary,” but now I’m a little tired of it, and the same goes for “One Bad Apple,” which has been in my iPod for years now but may be retired soon.

Which of the others are in my iPod and thus part of my day-to-day listening? The Joplin and the Lightfoot, certainly, along with the Temptations and both sides of the Creedence single. Adding in the Osmonds, that makes six. The Carpenters and Tom Jones may be added. The Turners and the Jacksons won’t be. The Partridge Family? Maybe.

And now, let’s drop to No. 50 from fifty years ago. And we find B.B. King’s “Ask Me No Questions,” a track pulled from the album Indianola Mississippi Seeds. The record was climbing the Hot 100, heading for a peak at No. 40, while over on the magazine’s R&B chart, it was at its peak of No. 18.

It’s an interesting record, in that it’s got more piano in it than I tend to expect of a King record, but a quick look at the credits at both AllMusic and discogs tells me that Carole King was around for the album sessions. I wish I had track-by-track information, but I don’t. Even without knowing for sure who’s on the piano, it’s a good listen, which means that B.B. King’s “Ask Me No Questions” is today’s Saturday Single.

Old Music, Modern Dilemma

March 9th, 2021

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my Christmas present from the Texas Gal: The Harry Smith B-Sides, a collection of vintage music created by flipping over eighty-one of the eighty-four 78s that collector Harry Smith included in his ground-breaking Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.

B Sides

According to the booklet in the B-Sides box, the idea of a Harry Smith B-sides project had been around for a while. Lance Ledbetter of Dust-To-Digital – the label that released the new box set last year – says in a piece in the booklet that he began working on the idea of collecting digital copies of all eighty-four flip sides in 2004 or so but ran into trouble finding several of the old records.

(Because Ledbetter already owned the 1997 CD edition of the original Anthology, he already owned a few of the flips, as in 1952, Smith included both the A- and B- sides of four of the 78s he used to create his collection.)

But Ledbetter shelved the project when he was unable to find all of the old records. And in 2013, Ledbetter heard from record collector John Cohen, who with his partner, Eli Smith, had gathered the Smith B-sides and were wondering if Dust-To-Digital could help with production and release. Connections ensued, and Smith assured Ledbetter and his partner and wife, April, that all eighty-four flipsides were available.

It took some time, but as 2020 dawned, the box set was almost ready to go out the door. But three of the tracks caused some concern because of their racist language and imagery: “You Shall Be Free” by Bill & Belle Reed from 1928, “I’m The Child To Fight” by Uncle Dave Macon with Sam McGee, also from 1928, and “Henhouse Blues” by the Bentley Boys from 1929, would be startling and potentially offensive in today’s culture.

Still, Cohen, Smith and the Ledbetters planned to include the three tracks in the B-Sides collection. As Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Sam Briger in December:

[B]etween the time in 2013, when we first started talking about this, and 2015, when we finalized the liner notes, we felt that leaving the three songs with racist lyrics . . . including them on the CDs was the right decision because we were looking at it more as historical accuracy and looking at it as a sense of preservation, that this is the full version.

Cohen had died in 2019, leaving Smith and the Ledbetters to finish the project. And things changed:

And between 2015, when we made that decision, and 2020, we changed. We changed that decision. And it really came about when we started listening to the test pressings for the vinyl. And we heard the songs differently. And I remember April and I, we felt like we needed to do something to address this – these songs . . . . And we were conversing on how to deal with this in 2020.

The solution was to place a note in the box set warning that the three tracks in question contained racist and offensive content so they could be skipped if the listener so desired. But one day at an open-air market, Ledbetter says, a friend who ran the market was playing Smith’s original 1952 anthology on the market’s sound system. Lance Ledbetter told NPR’s Briger, “I looked around and just saw a diverse group of people under the tent – Black people, Hispanic people, white people, old people and young people.” And he wondered about the effect on the crowd at the market if the music had instead been the Harry Smith B-Sides and one of those three racist tracks popped up.

Ledbetter went on:

And I just thought that there was no note that you could include in a box set that would explain why they were hearing that music and those lyrics. And it was at that point that the decision was made. We need to take those tracks off because once they’re on those CDs, they’re broadcast in homes and on the radio. It’s putting music out there that, in 2020, we just didn’t feel like it needed to be in the public sphere.

So with the release date for the box set approaching, three of the four CDs were redone, removing the three offensive tracks and leaving four seconds of dead air in their places. The commentary about the three tracks remains in the booklet, so the tracks’ places in history – as three of the Smith flipsides – is still recognized.

The three tracks are not hard to find. I gathered copies from a couple of sources in minutes one day. And they are offensive. They would have been in the late 1920s for some folks, and they’d be offensive to everyone, I hope, in 2021.

So, is it historically inaccurate to offer the Dust-To-Digital box set as Harry Smith’s B-sides when three of the tracks have been purposefully removed from the set? Would it have been better to leave the offensive recordings in their places? I’ve been pondering the question since late December, and I’m don’t know if the removal of those three songs is a matter of altering history (or of “cancel culture,” as some would likely call it). My thought would have been to add a fifth CD to the box set containing those three tracks with clear warning on the CD sleeve of the offensive content. Whether that would have worked, I have no idea.

Here’s the first of the eighty-one tracks included in the box set: “One Cold December Day” by Dick Justice. Little is known about the man except that he was born Henry Franklin Justice in 1906 in Logan County, West Virginia. “One Cold December Day” is based on a traditional British ballad and was one of ten tracks Justice recorded for the Brunswick label on May 21, 1932.

Saturday Single No. 727

March 6th, 2021

This will be brief because I still am not feeling the greatest. Backlash from the vaccine? I dunno. But the less time I spend thinking today, the better off I – and the world – will be.

So, I looked at the number above and thought about airplanes and asked the RealPlayer to sort for “planes.” Maybe not a good idea. Anything with “planet” in its title came up, as well, like Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves, the soundtracks to the television series The Lonely Planet and a few more. And then, even when I found the right word, I had to winnow out everything by the Jefferson Airplane.

But there were still lots of tracks about planes and airplanes, including six versions of John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and thirteen versions of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” but since that last is about a car, it doesn’t really count.

I looked on.

There are a couple of tracks titled just “Airplane,” one by the Indigo Girls from their 1992 album Rites Of Passage and a single by a group called Peter’s Pipers on the Philips label from 1968. Other titles jump out: “Trains & Boats & Planes” by Dionne Warwick. “Waiting For The Last Plane” by Joy Of Cooking. “The Great Airplane Strike” by Paul Revere & The Raiders. “Springfield Plane” by Kenny O’Dell on the Vegas label.

(I recognize O’Dell’s name. He was a prolific country songwriter and producer with a handful of country hits and a similar handful of hits in the Billboard Hot 100, including “Springfield Plane,” which went to No. 94.)

There are versions of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” from the Byrds, Richard Shindell and Nanci Griffith.

There are “Paper Planes” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers as well as by M.I.A., and “Plane Crash” by Basil Poledouris from the soundtrack to The Hunt For Red October and then “On A ’plane To Nowhere” by Barracade (with that odd punctuation) and “Outbound Plane” from, again, Nanci Griffith.

And then I see “Next Plane To London” by Rose Garden, a 1967 single I wrote about briefly some years ago, and adjacent to it is another version of the tune, and there’s Kenny O’Dell again, who wrote the song and recorded it for his 1968 album Beautiful People.

Who am I to argue? It’s a Kenny O’Dell day, and his cover of “Next Plane To London” is today’s Saturday Single.

Promises

March 4th, 2021

I was going to do marvelous things here this week. Well, I was at least going to do something here this week.

But a trip to the doctor’s office for blood work Monday turned into an additional appointment Wednesday to catch up on some Medicare regulations, split by a trip across town Tuesday evening for my first Covid vaccination.

The shot gave me no trouble at the moment – considering my history with reactions to chemicals, I was concerned – but last evening, I started to have some fatigue and body aches. Add to that the common cold I generally carry from mid-November to mid-March, and I slept in this morning. And I do not feel at all well.

So, for at least today, I cannot offer what I planned, which was my post about The Harry Smith B-Sides, the collection of vintage music I described last week. Perhaps tomorrow, although I make no promises (and I should not have done so last week).

And that provides an opportunity to offer instead of some vintage music a version of one of my favorite songs, “Don’t Make Promises,” written and first recorded by Tim Hardin. He released the tune on a Verve single in June 1966 and on the album Tim Hardin I in August of that year. According to Second Hand Songs, more than thirty covers have followed, most of them in the 1960s and 1970s.

Here’s the Texas Gal’s favorite version of the tune, one that was included by Three Dog Night as an album track on its self-titled 1969 album:

Saturday Single No. 726

February 27th, 2021

There are a very few tracks in the digital collection here that have been recorded on February 27, maybe ten. (Of the 82,000 mp3s pulled into the RealPlayer, I have that depth of information on maybe ten percent.)

And a quick look at the February 27 tracks offers one that came to me via the series called When The Sun Goes Down, a set of eleven CDs issued between 2002 and 2004 featuring vintage music from the Victor and Bluebird labels.

The Hall Brothers recorded the song “Constant Sorrow” in Charlotte, North Carolina, on this date in 1938. The song, of course, is better known these days as “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” after being featured in the 2000 movie O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, but there had been somewhere around forty versions of the song recorded and released before that. And since the movie came out, according to Second Hand Songs, at least another thirty-five versions of the song have been recorded and released.

The Hall Brothers’ version – Roy Hall took the vocal and played guitar while his brother Jay Hugh added guitar and Steve Ledford added fiddle – was among the earliest recorded. The first version, again according to Second Hand Songs, came from Emry Arthur, whose take on the song was released on the Vocalion label in May 1928. The next version listed was recorded by the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1951.

As to the Hall Brothers’ version. for whatever reason, neither the Victor nor Bluebird label released the 1938 track, leaving it dormant for sixty-six years. And since I’m dabbling in vintage music these days, the Hall Brothers’ 1938 take on “Constant Sorrow” is today’s Saturday Single.

Digging In The Long-Gone Past

February 26th, 2021

One of the things I got for Christmas from the Texas Girl in December was a newly released collection of vintage music titled The Harry Smith B-Sides. Harry Smith, as most readers likely known, was the eccentric music collector who in the early 1950s. assembled from his collection of 78s an eighty-four-track mélange of music from the 1920s and 1930s.

That collection was released in 1952  on the Folkways label as The Anthology of American Folk Music, and it became a seminal artifact in the development of the folk scene of the 1950s and early 1960s.

There was an obscure logic to the way Smith arranged the collection, grouping the eighty-four songs in three categories, but listeners and musicians, or so said news pieces I saw last autumn, have often wondered what kind of collection would one find if one listened to the flip sides of the records Smith included in his anthology.

Well, that’s exactly what the folks at the Dust to Digital label did in the collection The Harry Smith B-Sides. And that’s some of the music I’ve been absorbing over the last two months. The whole thing is made more interesting because as the release date for the collection came near, Dust to Digital’s project found itself smack in the middle of last summer’s discussions of racial and social justice.

And not to be a tease, but I’m still working out the ideas for a longer piece on the new set and the issues it touched. That should show up here next week, I hope. In the meantime, here’s one of the funnier songs – but one that’s still imbued with some violent imagery – from Smith’s original 1952 anthology.

Here’s “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker & His Old-Time Banjo, a retelling of the old tune “Froggie Went A-Courtin’.” The track was recorded in New York City on August 13, 1928, and was released on the Columbia label.

What’s At No. 100? (February 1971)

February 24th, 2021

Well, the Billboard Top Ten from the last week in February 1971 – fifty years ago – doesn’t hold many surprises:

“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds
“Mama’s Pearl” by the Jackson 5
“Knock Three Times” by Dawn
“Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson
“If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot
“I Hear You Knocking” by Dave Edmunds
“Sweet Mary” by Wadsworth Mansion
“Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed
“Mr. Bojangles” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
“Me & Bobbie McGee” by Janis Joplin

Man, there are a bunch of short titles in there. That list might set a record for the Top Ten with the fewest words in its ten titles: Thirty, making for an average of three words per title.

That, of course, says nothing about the quality of the records, which is pretty good, as I sort it out. (As always, I’m confronted by the quandary: Do I assess these records as I would have when the chart was new, or do I look at them from today’s perch? I end up doing a little bit of both, I imagine.)

What did I like back then? I liked the records by Anderson and Lightfoot. I liked “Sweet Mary,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “Bobbie McGee.” And fifty years later, only “Rose Garden” isn’t as good as it used to be.

I liked “I Hear You Knocking,” but I didn’t understand why the vocal sounded as if it were pinched somehow, and I really didn’t get why Edmunds hollered out what seemed like random names during the instrumental. I recognized only one of the names – Chuck Berry – and that one only vaguely. I could have used the record as a road map to learn more about music if I’d only paid attention or had someone to ask, I guess. I like it a lot more today, knowing what Edmunds was up to, than I did then.

“One Bad Apple” and “Amos Moses” didn’t do it for me when I was seventeen. I’ve changed my mind about the Jerry Reed single but not about the Osmonds’. The Dawn record was a hoot in 1971; when it played on the jukebox in St. Cloud Tech High’s multi-purpose room, kids would use their fists on the lunch tables to knock three times themselves. It’s a nice memory today. I don’t recall hearing “Mama’s Pearl” back then at all. And from 2021, it’s just okay.

What, then, do we find when we drop to the bottom of that Hot 100, which came out on February 27, 1971?

We find “Super Highway” by Ballin’ Jack, a record that kind of fits into the “back to the land” ethos that permeated a lot of tunes at the time, or if not “back to the land” at least offered a critique of society’s tendency to trade land for asphalt.

The chorus, specifically, tugs at me:

Super highway tearing through my city
Super highway tearing through my town
Super highway tearing through my country
Super highway, got to tear it down

We seem in the United States these days to at least be starting to reckon with how our culture has treated the cultures of people of color. Whether that turns into a long-term effort is, of course, an open question. But among the topics I’ve seen raised lately in news coverage and in online gathering spots is how the routing of the Interstate Highway system literally tore apart inner-city communities of color.

Here in Minnesota, St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood – the center of Black culture in the city – was shredded when I-94 was routed through the city in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I think a similar thing happened, though not to the same degree, when the western segment of I-35 was routed through South Minneapolis. And Ballin’ Jack was singing about it – or something very much like it – fifty years ago.

Ballin’ Jack was, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, an interracial jazz-rock group from San Francisco. “Super Highway” was the group’s only single to hit the Hot 100, topping out during a four-week run at No. 93. The single was a very tight edit of a longer track on the group’s first album, a self-titled effort that hit No. 180 on the Billboard 200.

The album track starts with a slow introduction that kills the track before it begins to rock, while the single kicks from the start, sort of like what happened not quite a year earlier with the punchy radio single of Pacific Gas & Electric’s “Are You Ready” and the slowly starting album track.

Here’s the single of “Super Highway,” which would have been a fine piece of horn band rock if the writers had developed the lyric – which is way too repetitive – a lot more.

Saturday Single No. 725

February 20th, 2021

During a conversation about concerts over the Texas Gal’s birthday dinner yesterday, I came to realize that I’d made an error in yesterday’s post about the concert meme running around Facebook.

She mentioned that sometime in the early 1970s, she’d seen both the Partridge Family and the Cowsills , and that triggered my memory. It turns out that the first pop/rock concert I ever attended that was not at St. Cloud State was a performance in 1970 by the Cowsills at the Minnesota State Fair. All of us – Dad, Mom, my sister and I – were there.

I vaguely remember the family band coming onto the stage in spangly costumes, and I imagine they performed their hits: “Hair,” “Indian Lake,” and “The Rain, The Park, & Other Things,” but I don’t recall that part of the evening. Nor do I recall the opening act, which was Bobby Vinton. So, if I don’t remember it, does it count? I dunno.

(I could rely on the same scoring system I encourage the Texas Gal to use: Her older sister brought her along when she was very young – maybe seven or eight – to see the Beatles. She doesn’t remember anything of the show, just that there were a lot of people screaming. Does she get to say her first concert was the Beatles? I say yes. But should I count the Cowsills? I guess so.)

Another candidate for first pop/rock concert not at St. Cloud State also took place at the State Fair, a year after the (evidently) forgettable performance by the Cowsills. This one I remember: Neil Diamond. We’d been at the fair most of the day, and when showtime – likely 6 p.m. – rolled around, my folks wandered around the fairgrounds while Rick and I took in the first of two shows that Diamond did that night.

It was the day before my eighteenth birthday, and I recall bits and pieces of the concert: “Sweet Caroline,” “Done Too Soon,” and my favorite of the time, “Holly Holy” all come to mind.

And since the conversation over our meal yesterday, I’ve been wondering how many concerts I’ve been to that I’ve utterly forgotten about, as I did the Cowsills’ performance as I was writing yesterday. Not many, I don’t imagine. I didn’t go to that many to begin with, probably between twenty and thirty pop/rock (and related) shows. There are a few others that are dim in memory, though. As I’ve noted here before, I sometimes have to remind myself that I saw It’s A Beautiful Day when I was in college and that I saw the Rascals a year before that when I was a senior in high school.

Ah, well. No big deal. Here’s Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which I’m sure we heard that evening in September 1971, as it was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. It’s today’s Saturday Single.