‘Ages ago, last night . . .’

May 21st, 2021

Keeping to a theme begun a few posts ago, I checked out the data bases and found that just seven years ago today, I brought home the CD of one of Frank Sinatra’s greatest albums, September Of My Years.

It’s a melancholy album, filled with longing, doubt and reverie, recorded in 1965 when Sinatra was forty-nine and perfect for how I often feel these days. I’m some years older than Sinatra was when he recorded the album, but the record still speaks to me; I feel as if I’ve invested a great deal of my entire life in reverie, doubt, and longing. Fine. I am who I am.

Whatever else I might say about the album – or how I feel these days – was said much better by Stan Cornyn in his liner notes for the album in 1965:

He sings of the penny days. Of the rose-lipt girls and candy apple times. Of green winds, of a first lass who had perfumed hair. April thoughts.

He sings with perspective. This vital man, this archetype of the good life, this idolized star . . . this man pauses. He looks back. He remembers, and graces his memory with a poet’s vision.

He has lived enough for two lives, and can sing now of September. Of the bruising days. Of the rouged lips and bourbon times. Of chill winds, of forgotten ladies who ride in limousines.

September can be an attitude or an age or a wistful reality. For this man, it is a time of love. A time to sing.

A thousand days hath September.

Here’s the melancholy (what else?) plaint, “Last Night When We Were Young.”

Making A Myth?

May 19th, 2021

Poking around in the LP database this morning, I noticed that twenty-one years ago today, I picked up Neil Young’s three-record anthology Decade, released in 1977.

It’s strange, the things that stick with you. I stopped at a garage sale in the suburb of Richfield., a couple miles from my apartment in the very southern portions of Minneapolis. I remember it because of the delusional prices for records. There were several Elvis Presley anthologies in the box of records, all of them priced at $10 or more.

I’d seen many copies of the same anthologies at Cheapo’s for much less.

And I found Decade. I’d glanced at copies of it at Cheapo’s – they were infrequent there – and winced at the $10.80 price. (Cheapo’s sold records in what was considered fine condition for $3.60 a disc, thus a three-LP set in fine condition was $10.80.) That price was a budget-buster back in 2000. But at the garage sale, the fine folks who wanted $10 for an omni-present Elvis collection were asking only $1 for Decade.

I walked away with it, and later that day, gave its three records a listen. It was in great shape, and the music was fine. It wasn’t stuff I was going to listen to frequently, but it was good to have it around: stuff from the Buffalo Springfield years, from his work with Crazy Horse, his solo work, and stuff with Crosby, Still, and Nash. It left me, however, vaguely dissatisfied.

When the time came for the great vinyl sell-off maybe five years ago, Decade went out the door. I’d gotten hold of Young’s 2004 Greatest Hits CD, and that – along with a few other albums on CD – was all I needed. (I kept the LP of his 1978 album Comes A Time, as it’s my favorite of all his work.)

So, anyway, I was pondering Decade this morning on the anniversary of my finding it, and I went to Wikipedia to check the track list, and I found this interesting segment:

The album has been lauded in many quarters as one of the best examples of a career retrospective for a rock artist, and as a template for the box set collections that would follow in the 1980s and beyond. However, in the original article on Young from the first edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll and a subsequent article in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide, critic Dave Marsh used this album to accuse Young of deliberately manufacturing a self-mythology, arguing that while his highlights could be seen to place him on a level with other artists from his generation like Bob Dylan or The Beatles, the particulars of his catalogue did not bear this out. The magazine has since excised the article from subsequent editions of the Illustrated History book.

I’ve got both books here, and yeah, Marsh lays it on a little hard. In the Record Guide, he writes: “[F]or all his virtues, Young embedded his good ideas in a trove of bad ones, and his realized concepts are forever juxtaposed (except on Decade) with his worst. With the exception of Tonight’s The Night, he has never been able to make a fully realized concept album, not a terribly significant flaw except that he kept on making half-realized ones. By excerpting the most successful moments from these failures, Young almost managed to convince you they were triumphs.”

I think Marsh is right about half-baked ideas in Young’s oeuvre, but it crosses my mind that it’s pretty rich for the man who helped elevate Bruce Springsteen to mythic status to complain about another rock star’s efforts to hone his own legend.

Decade was a great bargain twenty-one years ago today, but I don’t miss it. Young’s Greatest Hits CD is a better fit for me. It’s missing the Buffalo Springfield  and CSN&Y tracks, as well as stuff from Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach, and a Crazy Horse jam or two, if I read the listings correctly. I’ve got the Springfield and CSN&Y stuff elsewhere, I can find Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach if I want to hear them and the jams aren’t a big deal to me.

So, here’s a Young track with Crazy Horse from Decade that I do like: “Down By The River.” It was originally on the 1969 album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

Saturday Single No. 736

May 15th, 2021

Every music hunter knows the deal: You’re flipping through a bin of CDs or LPs, looking for nothing in particular, nearly hypnotized by the click-click of the CDs or the floof-floof of the record jackets, and then you stop. And go back one or two or three spots. And you pull out a CD or LP and scan the jacket.

You have no idea why that particular album grabbed your attention. Sometimes something on the jacket, something in the credits clicks. Maybe a name, maybe a place, maybe a song title. You look at the price, and if it’s reasonable for something you don’t seem to know about, you set it aside and it goes home with you.

And when it’s in the player or on the turntable, maybe it works for you. Sometimes, it’s good stuff. Most of the time, I’d guess, it’s just okay music. And every once in a while, it’s something that you really needed, even if you didn’t know what it was. The universe is funny like that.

Twenty-one years ago today, I was in the budget room of a Half Price Books in St. Paul, sifting through first the books and then the CDs. I don’t remember if I bought any books, but one of the CDs on the budget cart called to me. I looked it over and couldn’t figure out why.

The album, Glory Road, was from 1992, by a group called Maggie’s Farm. Okay, a Dylan reference. The lead vocalists were two women: Allison MacLeod and Claudia Russell. No recognition there, nor with the rest of the band: Steve Bankuti on drums and percussion, Jason Keene on bass, Brian Kerns on keyboards, and Roy Scoutz on guitar.

I scanned further and found a couple of names I recognized: David Lindley on Hawaiian guitar and lap steel and Rosemary Butler on background vocals. I headed for the cash register.

At home, I dropped the CD into the player and sat back to listen. I don’t even remember what the second track on the album sounded like. I’m sure it’s popped up on the RealPlayer from time to time, as have, no doubt, others from the CD. The first track, the title track, was all I needed.

Since 1992, Claudia Russell has played with and/or written for other folks and has released a few solo albums, the most recent in 2013. Allison MacLeod’s credits at AllMusic are more slender, with nothing since 2003.

I’ll probably look for some of Russell’s work. And I’ll likely rip Glory Road as a full album and see if I like it when it pops up. If so, fine. If not, okay. All I really need, just like back in 2000, is the title track, “Glory Road.” And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘You Are The Reason . . .’

May 14th, 2021

Having discarded three ideas for a post and having spent some time on the phone with the plumber this morning (minor problem, but it can’t be fixed until Tuesday), I’m turning back to the list of covers of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Here’s Alison Krauss’ take on the song, which was used in the soundtrack to the 2003 NBC TV series Crossing Jordan. It’s not that different from most of the covers, but Krauss’ voice is always a treat.

Chart Digging: LPs, May 1971

May 12th, 2021

Here are the top ten albums in the Billboard 200 from the third week in May 1971, fifty years ago:

4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Jesus Christ Superstar (Original concept album)
Up To Date by the Partridge Family
Pearl by Janis Joplin
Golden Bisquits by Three Dog Night
Mud Slide Slim & The New Horizon by James Taylor
Tapestry by Carole King
Tea For The Tillerman by Cat Stevens
Survival by Grand Funk Railroad
Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones

I know eight of those, and I know most of those eight very well. The only mysteries would be the albums by Grand Funk Railroad and the Partridge Family, though I imagine I might recognize some tracks on the latter from radio play at the time.

I had a copy of 4 Way Street for a time; Rick brought it over one evening in 1974 when he was clearing his shelves of stuff that no longer fit into his listening aesthetic. (He was moving quickly into a heavy Poco and Gram Parsons period.) I’d heard 4 Way Street at his place when he got it, and although I liked some of the performances on it – and I was pleased to have the album at a time when I was homebound – I never did find the album to be essential listening.

There were too many ragged performances, and it just wasn’t fun listening. (As I understand it, of course, the band wasn’t really having fun, either). My vinyl copy of the record left here during the big sell-off a few years ago, I’ve never had a CD copy of the album, and only one track from the album – the lovely performance of “The Lee Shore” – is on the digital shelves.

(I’ve heard some of the live collection from the 1974 tour of the quartet, and those performances sound fairly good. I was at one of those shows, and at least on that evening in St. Paul, it seemed like the four men almost liked each other. I might add that album to the collection someday.)

Of the others, the one I know least is likely the James Taylor album. I have it on the digital shelves but nowhere else, and it’s never seemed essential to me. As to Three Dog Night, the Texas Gal’s long-loved copy of Golden Bisquits is still in the vinyl stacks, and somewhere among the CDs we have a newer anthology from the group.

The other five albums – Jesus Christ Superstar and those by Joplin, Stevens, King, and the Rolling Stones – were essential listening to me during my college and early adulthood years with Tea For The Tillerman coming into the mix a little later than the others. During those years, I’d guess that at least one of those first four – Tapestry, Sticky Fingers, Pearl and Jesus Christ Superstar – was on the stereo every week.

Are they still that vital to me? Let’s check the iPod, where we find one track from Jesus Christ Superstar (the title track), four tracks each from the albums by Stevens and the Rolling Stones, six tracks from Pearl, six tracks from Three Dog Night’s Golden Bisquits, and eight tracks from Tapestry.

When this chart came out, I was seventeen, still three-and-a-half months from eighteen. As always, I ask myself: Is my affection for the music of that time because of the joy of memory or for the quality of the music? Well, it’s great music. Of that, I am certain. But the memories of that time – most of them, anyway – are good, too. So as always, I don’t know.

It’s hard to pick a single favorite track from any of those albums. So I’m going to go with a track from the Joplin album that ran through my dreams the other night when I was not sleeping well: “Half Moon,” written by John and Johanna Hall.

Saturday Single No. 735

May 8th, 2021

The Texas Gal and I took an overnight trip last weekend to the harbor city of Duluth, Minnesota, at the western tip of Lake Superior, and seeing the big lake and its freighters reminded me of a piece I posted here years ago pondering, among other things, the definition of folk song. So, I thought I’d share that – edited somewhat – again today.

A number of years ago, during a driving tour around Lake Superior, the Other Half and I stopped at a maritime museum on an old ship in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the eastern end of the big lake. We wandered through displays about the shipping industry on the Great Lakes, seeing this old logbook and that old uniform, likely learning more than we had expected but being – at least in my case – curiously unmoved by what we were seeing.

There was nothing there that communicated to me the power and romance of the lakes, especially Superior, a body of water so large that it’s really not a lake but an inland sea.

And then we went back on deck and saw a battered lifeboat. Perhaps thirty feet long and made of thick steel, the boat sat malformed on the deck of the museum ship, twisted and bent, mute testimony to the power of the lake where its parent vessel had plied its trade. The name of the parent ship stenciled onto the lifeboat? The Edmund Fitzgerald.

It’s been almost forty-six years since a November storm sent the Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom of Lake Superior. To those of us in the Northland, certainly in the states that share Superior’s shores, the sinking remains vivid in memory, a marker in time. I have a sense, though, that for those from elsewhere in the U.S. (and certainly elsewhere in the world), the boat’s sinking would be a dim memory today were it not for Gordon Lightfoot. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a single taken off his Summertime Dream album in 1976, provides an indelible and haunting reminder of the events of November 10, 1975.

All-Music Guide, in its review of Summertime Dream, notes: “As for ‘Edmund Fitzgerald,’ its continued popularity . . . attests to the power of a well-told tale and a tasty guitar lick.” I think the popularity of the song is more complex than that, however. To me, one of the main reasons for the song’s enduring vitality is that, in 1976, it brought to popular culture, for one of the few times in many years, a true example of folk music.

Folk music, as it’s been defined since about 1965, is music with primarily acoustic instrumentation. (When electric instrumentation is added, one finds folk’s cousin, folk rock.) That’s a pretty sparse and broad definition, but it has to be to bring into the fold of folk music all the performers who have been described since the mid-Sixties as folk artists, as the genre evolved into singer/songwriter music.

A more narrow and purist definition would call folk music only that music that has been passed on via an oral tradition. The practicality of requiring an oral tradition, however, long ago went by the wayside, most likely in 1952 with the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on Folkways Records, a collection that brought to multitudes of singers both inspiration and material, according to the testimony of Bob Dylan and many other folkies of the 1960s.

Requiring folk music today to have an oral source rather than a recorded source would mean that any musician who performs, say, “Man of Constant Sorrow” after hearing it on Dylan’s first album or after hearing any of the many other versions of the song released over the past seventy years, is singing a song that is no longer folk music, and that constraint, to me, is silly.

So I think that worrying about the source of the music isn’t the place to look when talking about folk music. I think we’re better off looking at content: What is the song about?

And in much of the music that was considered classic, traditional folk – the music contained in the Smith anthology and more – commemoration of and commentary on the events of the day was central. Cultural memory was preserved in live song in those years before everyone saw the news on CNN and before everyone could listen to the song on a record player or a CD player or an iPod. Answering the question of “What happened when?” is a central part of much classic, traditional folk music.

I think it’s likely that a wide audience truly began to ponder the impact of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald only after hearing Lightfoot’s song. Here in the Northland, the recording was more a reminder than anything. But for both audiences – those who already knew a great deal about the Edmund Fitzgerald and those who learned more about it through the song – Gordon Lightfoot’s song provides a commemoration of the event, and to me, that is the core function of folk music, to provide common memory of the events that form and transform our communities:

‘Come Down Off Your Throne . . .’

May 7th, 2021

In a couple of posts last week, I wrote a bit about the Steve Winwood song “Can’t Find My Way Home,” originally recorded by Blind Faith and released on the group’s only album in 1969. Looking back at those, I wondered what I might have said about the song in earlier posts, so I opened the folder that contains the Word files for this blog.

And I haven’t said much. I posted the Blind Faith version of the song as a Saturday Single in early 2009 without much comment, and in the posts last week, I shared covers of the song by Yvonne Elliman and Gilberto Gil. Beyond those, I’ve never mentioned the song in fourteen years of tossing stuff at the wall here.

I might have more to say about the song, but that will be on another day. Perhaps next week. In the meantime, there are plenty of covers to sample. But, like the two I posted last week, most of the other covers of the song I’ve ever heard seem to echo the Blind Faith arrangement, and as good as some of those covers are, that becomes a bit wearisome.

There is, however, one cover on the digital shelves here that finds a different path. It’s by country performers Pat Green and Cory Morrow, and it showed up on the 2001 album Song We Wish We’d Written.

Enjoy! I’ll be back tomorrow with a Saturday Single.

Fifty-One Years

May 4th, 2021

Four Dead In Ohio:

Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller
Sandra Scheuer
William Schroeder

Recording by Darcie Miner from Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity (2008).

Saturday Single No. 734

May 1st, 2021

We’re going to skip talking about May Day today – we once celebrated the day on the wrong date once, and invested two years of the holiday – 2009 and 2019 – into singing in German Tanz In Den Mai. That’s likely enough. So, all we’re going to say is that may your May Baskets be full, and then we can get on with talking only a little bit about Steve Winwood’s song “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

Once the song was released on Blind Faith in 1969, covers began to pop up. A Brazilian psychedelic/progressive group called Sound Factory took a run at the song in 1970, leaving behind a track with a reedy vocal not always certain about pitch. A year later, another Brazilian artist, Gilberto Gill, offered up on a self-titled album a cover of the song tinged with jazzy Latin influence.

And that’s where we’ll stop today: Gilberto Gill’s 1971 version of “Can’t Find My Way Home” is today’s Saturday Single.

I should note that I am aware that folks who have tried to leave comments here have been unable to do so. The folks at GoDaddy are trying to take care of that.

‘Somebody Holds The Key . . .’

April 29th, 2021

I was puttering at my computer the other week, probably reading the news, while across the room, the Texas Gal was working on a quilt. My computer’s iTunes provided the soundtrack.

There came a familiar acoustic introduction and then Steve Winwood’s unmistakable voice:

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone
Somebody must change
You are the reason I’ve been waiting all these years
Somebody holds the key

Well, I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home . . .

It was, of course, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” a track from the only album ever released by the British supergroup Blind Faith and a staple of progressive stations when the album came out in 1969.

The moment came back to me yesterday as I was wandering around YouTube digging into the oeuvre of Yvonne Elliman, the Hawaiian-born singer who first came to prominence in 1970 when she sang the role of Mary Magdalene for original release of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The album spent three non-consecutive weeks in early 1971 on top of the Billboard 200, and was in the magazine’s Top Ten for more than forty weeks.

And it brough Elliman her first two hits. In 1971, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” went to No. 28 (and to No. 15 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart), and “Everything’s Alright” went to No. 92 (No. 25, Easy Listening). As fine as those records were, yesterday, I was looking into other portions of Elliman’s career.

Why? Because the fine blog And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ – run by my friend jb – pointed me to Elliman’s single “I Can’t Get You Outa My Mind” from 1977. And once at YouTube, I began to dig around in the Hawaiian singer’s other later work, as collected on The Best Of Yvonne Elliman, a sixteen-track CD released in 1997. It’s got the two 1971 hits, of course, and 1978’s “If I Can’t Have You” a No. 1 hit from the movie Saturday Night Fever, as well as “Hello Stranger,” a No. 15 hit from 1977.

But it’s also got a lot of other stuff I’ve never heard, some of it from Elliman’s 1978 album Night Flight and a fair amount from elsewhere. One of those – and here things tie together – is Windwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Elliman’s version was released as a Decca single in 1971 and then showed up on her first album, a self-titled effort released in 1972.

Neither the record nor the single hit the Billboard charts. The single was listed as “hitbound” on an April 10, 1972, survey released by WILI in Willimantic, Connecticut, and was listed two days later as one of more than forty unranked singles on a survey released by WRKR-FM in Racine, Wisconsin.

There are a few other versions of Winwood’s song on the digital shelves here – and many more beyond that, based on the information at Second Hand Songs – but we’ll listen to Elliman’s today and perhaps dig into more covers in the weeks to come.