Archive for the ‘2015’ Category

‘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?

Saturday Single No. 528

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Among the trees we have gracing our acre-plus of yard are three Norway pines, perhaps my favorites with their graceful conical shapes and their clusters of long needles. One of the three is not far from the house and has been the starting point over the years for the seating for our summer picnics. All three are tall and, if you’ll excuse the personification, noble.

But I’m a little worried. All three of them have been shedding branches – some quite large – this winter. The yard is strewn with maybe thirty of them, ranging from a foot to perhaps four feet long. And that seems odd. We’ve had some high winds so far this winter, but nothing more fierce than we’ve had in winters past. (In fact, this has been a fairly mild winter: not that much snow and only one stretch of sub-zero temperatures although there is some chatter about a major storm heading our way at the end of next week.)

So I don’t know why the Norway pines are shedding so many branches this winter when they’ve not done so in winters past. I’m uncertain if the falling branches are harbingers of something wrong with the three Norway pines or if they’re just coincidence. I’d like to think it’s the latter.

The branches also bother me because they’re unsightly. As the snow cover has melted and the temperatures have risen in the past week or so, the Texas Gal and I have talked about getting outside and picking up the branches. I think we’ll be doing that today or tomorrow afternoon, as the temperature is supposed to get into the mid-50s.

That won’t tell us why the Norways are shedding branches, but at least it will make the yard a little more tidy.

And here’s an appropriate tune, a cover of a song originally done by The Band in 1969. Here’s “Whispering Pines” as performed by Boz Scaggs and Lucinda Williams. It’s from Scaggs’ 2015 album A Fool To Care, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘Orthophonic Joy’

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The border between Tennessee and Virginia runs along State Street in the city of Bristol, and it was in the Tennessee portion of that divided city that the recording sessions often called the Big Bang of country music took place during the summer of 1927.

Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company set up a portable studio and over the course of two weeks recorded seventy-six songs (some with multiple takes) by nineteen acts, including the first recordings by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. I’ve long had my eye on a five-CD box set of the complete Bristol Sessions, but with prices for a new copy currently at about ninety dollars these days, looking is all I’ll be doing for a while.

The wish for the box set ties in with my general tendency to dig back further and further into the history of American music, an effort that I hope brings me greater understanding of the roots of the rock, blues and R&B that I love. I’ve mentioned that tendency in connection with one or more blues and R&B box sets that have made their ways here over the past couple years, and even though I’m nowhere near to exhausting my exploration of blues and R&B, I’ve nevertheless added country music to my list of necessary explorations.

That exploration of country is in a nascent state. Over the years, I’ve found at one place or another six of the tracks Peer recorded in Bristol that summer (as well as many other early recordings of country music). As many vintage recordings are, they’re often hard listening, combining tales that are all too often sad and/or brutal with an unfamiliar musical aesthetic and the technological limitations of early remote recording.

I’d assume that, if I ever acquire that five-CD box set, the notes will provide a guide to its 123 tracks. So would notes in other sets of the Bristol material more limited in their scope, I assume, but where to start? And then I came across Orthophonic Joy. Subtitled “The 1927 Bristol Sessions Revisited,” the two-CD set was released last year by Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution), the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and the tourism offices of the states of Tennessee and Virginia.

The set’s title, Orthophonic Joy, comes from a promotion by the Victor Talking Machine Company for its new orthophonic Victrola, the first electronic record player, in which consumers are advised, “Don’t deny yourself the sheer joy of orthophonic music.”

The two CDs offer new recordings by current artists of eighteen of the songs recorded during the original 1927 sessions. There are also nineteen spoken interludes giving some of the history of the 1927 sessions, focusing on the artists who original recorded those eighteen songs.

As an example, here’s what historian Dr. Cindy Lovell had to say – as read by Eddie Stubbs – about the traditional tune “Pretty Polly” and the two recordings of it at hand, the 1927 version by B.F. Shelton (playing in the background) and the new version by Carl Jackson:

And here’s Jackson’s version:

The remakes, as fine as they are (and I’ve been enjoying them), are not the originals, of course, and the big box set – or perhaps several of the smaller collections – remain on my list. But in the meantime, well, I will not deny myself Orthophonic Joy.

Slighting The ‘E’ Folder

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Once again, it’s new computer time here in the EITW studios.

I write that like it’s a frequent occurrence. It’s not: The old computer, which was disconnected yesterday, was more than five years old. We’ve known for some time that its last byte was coming soon. But we’d hoped it would give us a few more months so we could do some planning.

But the upgrade to Windows 10 that I wrote about in early August accelerated things. I wasn’t happy with 10, so I reverted to Windows 7. But some software that the folks at Microsoft helped me upgrade when I moved to 10 didn’t work with 7. And the utilities that would help me delete it went away with 10. So I was unable to fully use my main email program; I could receive email, but I could not send or reply. To do that, I had to go to the web-based email of my ISP.

It was workable, but it was annoying, and I evidently became hard to live with. So the Texas Gal hauled me down to one of the big box stores the other day and we ordered a new HP desktop. It came yesterday morning as I was washing clothes, so I spent the day backing up files from the old computer and then installing files and programs on the new one.

Having gotten most everything running, I’m loading the 83,000 mp3s from the external hard drive to the new version of RealPlayer. It takes a while, so I’m doing it folder by folder. I tried to have the computer load everything overnight, but when I went to sleep, so did the computer; it got about halfway into Bob Dylan’s catalog before it got weary and quit. (The Texas Gal would wonder what took it so long.)

So this morning when I restarted the process on the “D” folder, I saw there were about 4,000 mp3s in it. The “E” folder has about 1,700, and the “F” folder about 3,200. The pattern holds with the number of subfolders in each of those three folders. The “D” folder has 284 subfolders, the “E” folder has 132 subfolders, and the “F” folder has 259 subfolders. I’m not going to keep track of any more of that, but those numbers tell me that I need to pay more attention to groups whose names begin with “E” and solo artists whose last names begin with “E.”

The subfolders in “E” begin with Ana Egge, a folkish artist whose recent album Bright Shadow was sent to me by a firm that promotes Americana, and end with Yvonne Elliman. It seems that I’ve never featured anything here by Ms. Elliman, and feel no urgency to change that. (I don’t dislike her work, but I’ve never been overly moved by any of it, either.) In the interest of offering something few have likely heard, though, I will offer some Ana Egge this morning, and then get back to loading things on the new machine. Here’s “Bright Shadow.”

One I’d Like To See

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Because I wander around YouTube a lot, looking for things to share here (and looking at college and pro football highlights, too, to be honest), the website always suggests a wide variety of other things I should look at. The other day, one of the suggested videos was titled “Mad Dogs & Englishmen: A Celebration of Joe Cocker hosted by Tedeschi Trucks Band.”

The album Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a document of Joe Cocker’s 1970 tour with Leon Russell and what seemed a cast of thousands, is one of my favorite albums. (My copy was given to me, coincidentally, forty years ago this week by a sweet woman named Laura, which means that I was likely spending a lot of evening time this week in 1975 bobbing my head and playing air piano on the green couch in the basement as Joe worked his way through “Cry Me A River” or “The Letter.”)

And the Tedeschi Trucks Band is one of my new favorites, formed in 2010 when married couple Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks in effect merged their two bands. I’d been following both musicians for a while, and the musical merger intrigued me, so I got hold of the new group’s first album, 2011’s Revelator. It was good. So when I saw the suggested video, I played it:

Wow, I thought. What a great show! And then I thought, too bad I won’t get to see it. It is in Virginia, after all. Even if it were closer, well, the Texas Gal and I rarely even go to the Twin Cities for concerts anymore. Part of that is economic, part of it is that driving in the Cities is less and less easy for both of us; neither of us is comfortable any longer in busy streets or on busy freeways.

So I consoled myself with the thought that the series of concerts is very likely to be recorded for both video and audio release, and I’ll most likely have the chance to see and hear the tribute in my own home. Delayed, yes, and at a technological remove, yes, but still . . .

That made me feel a little better, and I made a mental note to keep an eye on new music releases right around, I would guess, December. Maybe I can put the Mad Dogs celebration on my Christmas list.

So I clicked a few more YouTube links, and I came across a performance by the Tedeschi Trucks Band from this year’s Gathering Of The Vibes music festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Here’s the group’s take on “The Letter.” Add in those guest musicians come September, and it should be a hell of a show.

Saturday Single No. 460

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

The blank page mocks me this morning.

I’ve looked at Billboard Hot 100s from this day in 1964, 1970 and 1981, and I’ve found nothing that inspires me. I’ve checked the long list of events from August 22 over the years offered by Wikipedia, and found no joy there, either.

I am, I guess, a little weary from a week-long battle with my computer after I restored it to Windows 7 and lost the ability to send emails from Windows Live.

And I do have a brief list of errands that need to be done today, and it’s likely best that I get to them fairly early.

So without dithering any longer, I’m just going to offer here one of the best new things I’ve heard recently. It’s from Ashes & Dust, the new album by Warren Haynes, featuring, as the cover of the album says, Railroad Earth, a band described at Wikipedia as a “roots and Americana-based newgrass jam band from Stillwater, New Jersey.”

Haynes is likely best known for his work with the Allman Brothers Band and Govt. Mule. I’ve not heard all of Ashes & Dust, but I was struck by the results when Haynes brought Grace Potter into the studio for a duet on Stevie Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman.” It’s today’s Saturday Single.

Saturday Single No. 442

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

I’m spending more time in the car lately (gladly ferrying the Texas Gal around while her fibula heals), so I’ve taken to dropping commercial CDs instead of my (now well-known) mixes into the car’s player. I’ve listened to a few by Bruce Springsteen, including The Rising, Magic and a three-disc 1978 concert from Cleveland. There’s been some Bob Dylan, some Fleetwood Mac, a blues anthology or two, and a disc titled The I-10 Chronicles that offers music heard along the western portion of that southernmost Interstate highway.

And yesterday, I finally began listening – after sending one copy back to the retailer because it would not play on the computer – to a CD I mentioned with anticipation a little more than a month ago: Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn.

Giddens opens the recently released CD with “Last Kind Words,” her version of a song written and recorded in the 1930s by Geeshie Wiley. The song was one of the linchpins of a recent piece and resulting multimedia presentation – “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – from the New York Times Magazine. A chronicle of the search for information about Geeshie Wiley and her recording partner L.V. Thomas (long called “Elvie”), the piece and its accompanying video and audio captivated me so that I’ve gone back and re-read it and re-listened to it at least twice.

And it’s left Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues” echoing in my head from time to time. So as I headed toward the Texas Gal’s office near 5 p.m. yesterday, it was both startling and pleasing to hear Giddens’ version of the tune. (And I wonder without answers why she dropped the word “blues” from the title.) Here’s what Giddens had to say about the track in the liner notes to her CD, which was produced by T Bone Burnett.

The landscape of American music is littered with the ghosts of the unknowable and mysterious blues musician, scratchy voices on a 78 conjuring up an era and an energy long gone. No one represents this better, perhaps, than Geeshie Wiley, who, along with equally unknown L.V. Thomas, recorded a handful of sides for Paramount Records in 1930–31. “Last Kind Word Blues” calls to me in a way that I can’t really explain, but when T Bone suggested it for the record, I knew instantly it was the way to begin.

So here’s Rhiannon Giddens’ “Last Kind Words,” today’s Saturday Single.

Saturday Singles Nos. 436 & 437

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Like many things in life, new music finds us when we are ready for it. About eight years ago, one of the blogs I frequented – a blog so long gone that I do not recall its name – dealt with the music we call Americana or roots music. Some of the stuff it offered, I liked, and some found me less enthusiastic.

And the one performer that I found there that I have followed more than any other is Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The lost blog offered several albums by the Chocolate Drops, a string band that records the music of a lost era. Its predecessor group, the Sankofa Strings, focused on “a gamut of African American music: country and classic blues, early jazz and ‘hot music,’ string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces,” as Wikipedia puts it, and the Chocolate Drops have plowed the same fields.

Current members of the group along with Giddens are Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson; earlier members who have moved on are Justin Robinson, Adam Matta and Dom Flemons. The names mean little to me and, I assume, to readers, and I’m likely doing a disservice to those six musicians. But the music, steeped in a culture mostly lost to time, was what mattered, that and Giddens’ voice and her work on banjo and fiddle.

I started with a 2006 album titled Colored Aristocracy by the Sankofa Strings, some of which was released later on a 2008 CCD album titled Heritage. Other releases that have seen at least some time on the various music players here are Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2007), Genuine Negro Jig (2010) and Leaving Eden (2012). The band’s work has also been included in several soundtracks and tribute albums, including the first Hunger Games film and the 2007 film The Great Debaters. And the sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops – and yes, the name caused me some discomfort at first, as it has for other listeners whose comments I’ve read online – continues to pull me in, to reach some place inside me and make me feel as if I’ve been waiting a long time to hear music I never knew existed before.

Giddens has since gained a more prominent profile. As I noted in a post in December, she was one of the musicians invited by producer T-Bone Burnett to put music to a rediscovered sheaf of Bob Dylan’s lyrics from the Basement Tapes era. The resulting album, Lost On The River, was released late last year and found its way to my ears as a Christmas present. (The other musicians invited to write to Dylan’s lyrics were Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith.) It’s a remarkable album, and I’ve seen several reviews that have noted that the eye-opener is Giddens, who was likely the least known – at least in the mainstream – among the musicians brought together.

And last month, Giddens released her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, also produced by Burnett. I’ve heard a few things from it, including a startling live performance of the Jacques Wolf tune “Waterboy” on the Late Show with David Letterman. And I’m looking forward to digging into the album as soon as our mail carrier drops it off.

Here are two pieces by Giddens. The first is “Spanish Mary,” one of her contributions to Lost On The River, and the second is “Waterboy” from Tomorrow Is My Turn. And they’re today’s Saturday Singles.