Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bob Dylan's Lyrics: Songs or Poems?

Bob Dylan was recently honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."  Most of his best-known lyrics are 40-50 years old, so they're not "new" in the sense of recency.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s New York City's East Village neighborhood was home to clubs where the great folk revival singers gathered to share songs and inspiration.  Bob Dylan's songs stood out for their metaphors and interesting turns of phrase.  Other singers made some of his songs famous, Peter, Paul and Mary, especially.  He continues to write and perform, and many of his later songs are also considered great poetry.

Blowin' in the Wind, made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary (1962) and also on Dylan's album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) is one of the early anti-war anthems of the 1960s:
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps int he sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.  The answer is blowin' in the wind.
"The Times, They are A-Changin'" (1964) is the protest song most identified with Dylan as a performer.

"My Back Pages," from Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) is one of the songs covered by The Byrds Each stanza ends with one of his most famous lines:  "But I was so much older then.  I'm younger than that now."

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) references the highway in Mississippi made famous by Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938), the Delta Blues master who inspired many rock 'n roll artists.   "Like a Rolling Stone" was an indictment of the powerful brought down, or perhaps of middle-class teens who became vagabond hippies.  The song has the unforgettable lines:
You used to laugh about
Everybody was hanging out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Many of his lyrics are love songs, but they use more poetic devices than other love songs of the time.  Blonde on Blonde (1966) included "Visions of Johanna," which is mysterious and indecipherable.
Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it.
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind...
Blood on the Tracks (1975) included a bluesy song titled "Buckets of Rain"  One of the stanzas makes no literal sense but works as a blues song:
Little red wagon
Little red bike
I ain't no monkey but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow
I'm takin' you with me, honey baby
When I go.
"Hurricane" (co-written with Jacques Levy), was featured on his 1975 album, Desire.  It is one of many story songs by Dylan, and one of his most controversial.  This eight-minute song tells the story of the wrongful arrest and conviction of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a black boxer charged with a 1966 triple murder and eventually released.  Dylan became an advocate for Carter's release.   Carter was the subject of "The Hurricane, " (1999) starring Denzel Washington, and Dylan's song is used in the film.  The song begins:
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!"
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
The story ends when "the D.A. said he was the one who did the deed, And the all-white jury agreed."

Other famous songs were made famous by others: Tamborine Man, All Along the Watchtower, The Mighty Quinn, and Make you Feel My Love.

To read Dylan's lyrics from 1962 - 2001 check out ML 420 .D98 L97 2004

To understand more about the man and his impact, check out some of the books about him (most are shelved in the ML 420 .D98 number in the Music Collection)








Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Commemorating 9/11 in Music

Fifteen years later, the anguish of 9/11 still resonates for Americans, including many composers.  There have been several pieces composed since that date that memorialize the people and events:

John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for this haunting work that uses the names of some of the victims as the text.



Jake Heggie:  Pieces of 9/11
Heggie used interviews of Houston natives as the text for haunting
pieces set for three singers and a small group of instrumentalists.


Steve Reich: WTC 9/11
Pre-recorded voices from NORAD, the Fire Department of New York and interviews of friends and neighbors combine with the Kronos Quartet.


Kevin Malone: The Music of 9/11, vol. 1
Requiem77 includes recordings of air traffic controllers attempting to reach American Airlines Flight 77.
Robert Moran:  Trinity Requiem
Trinity Church, located near the World Trade Center, commissioned this piece by Robert Moran and recorded it for its 10th anniversary commemoration.

Ingram Marshall:  September Canons

Lera Auerbach:  September 11: Op. 63 for violin & piano

Ned Rorem:  Aftermath, a song cycle

Harold Levin: Meditation on the Twin Towers

On Naxos Music Library only:
For more information, check out this book:
The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror, edited by Joseph P. Fisher




Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins - Famous or Infamous Singer?

"Florence Foster Jenkins," a film starring Meryl Streep opens this week.  The title character was a real woman who used her wealth to indulge in her passion: classical singing.  She founded a musical club, the Verdi Club of New York, which continues its work today.  She performed for the club and other private venues, unwittingly becoming a laughingstock of musical cognoscenti.  In 1944 she rented Carnegie Hall and the secret was out.

She recorded nine songs and arias, which have been re-released on an album titled, "The Glory (????) Of the Human Voice."  Perhaps her most famous (or infamous) performance is Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria from the Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote).  This aria has some of the highest notes and most demanding passages in the operatic repertoire.  Most sopranos would not dare to attempt it, but Florence Foster Jenkins sang it... terribly.

To hear her voice for yourself, check out the recording via Naxos Music Library (log in required from off campus).

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Summer of 1966 in Music

Many of the hits of 1966 are such timeless classics that it's hard to believe they are now 50 years old!  Music of that era satisfied diverse tastes, yet many of the songs became "crossover" hits, appealing to wide audiences.   1966 was also the year that the "concept album" took hold.  Earlier albums contained unrelated songs, but in a concept album the songs are part of a whole.

Here are some of the iconic albums of 1966:

Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde was released in May of 1966 and became a double platinum hit album.  This album includes "Just Like a Woman," "Rainy Day Women," "I Want You" and "Visions of Johanna."
Compact Disc 21960

Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys is one of the first concept albums, but more than that, it explored new sonic territory with innovative engineering techniques and a large assortment of acoustical instruments.  It is preserved in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry and is second on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  Hits from the album include:
  • Wouldn't it be Nice
  • Sloop John B
  • God Only Knows
Pet Sounds Sessions:  This 1996 reissue includes alternate
takes and backing-only tracks.
Compact Disc 9735

The Pet Sounds reissue of 2012 includes both mono
and stereo tracks: Compact Disc 22647

The Beatles' "Paperback Writer" is considered a pivotal single for the band, transitioning their sound from pop to rock.  It was a hit in the Summer of 1966 as a single and was included on the 1970 album, Hey Jude.
Compact Disc 21998

The Beatles' album, Revolver, released in August, 1966, contains hits "Taxman," "Eleanor Rigby," "Here, There, and Everywhere," "Good Day Sunshine," "Got to Get You into My Life" as well as "Yellow Submarine."
Compact Disc 18338 (reissue with added goodies)
Compact Disc 1153

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention released "Freak Out!" which used unusual timbres, stretching the limits of pop sounds.  This concept album was an underground hit, exploring psychedelic sounds, avant garde techniques borrowed from jazz and classical music, and layered textures.  "In Memoriam, Edgard Varèse" references the composer who popularized musique concrète, the technique of using sounds created from objects that would not normally be considered musical instruments.
Compact Disc 15097

While rock music was evolving and pushing forward, Frank Sinatra, whose crooner career started in the Big Band era, continued to be popular.  His album, Frank Sinatra Sings for Moderns:
Strangers in the Night, includes the title track, Summer Wind, and
other popular songs by the then fifty-year-old superstar.
Compact Disc 11725

For more hits from 1966, check out these compilation albums:

Billboard Top Rock 'n' Roll Hits, 1966
Compact Disc 1743

Billboard Top R&B Hits, 1966
Compact Disc 114

"1966" from Time-Life Music
Compact Disc 239

1966: Shakin' All Over, from Time-Life Music
Compact Disc 240

1966, The Beat Goes On
Compact Disc 241

1966, Blowin' Your Mind
Compact Disc 358


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Music for a Relaxed Finals Week

Research has shown (See the American Psychological Association summary) that "multi-tasking" is not effective, or even possible.  What the brain really does is switch between tasks, to the detriment of all the tasks being done.

One of the most prevalent distractions for students is music: their own or their neighbor's.  If a student is used to hearing music continually, will silence be too alien to be helpful to attention?

Ever since the flawed "Mozart Effect" studies, researchers have sought to explain the seemingly positive effect of music on learning through brain studies and other methods.  In one study, researchers found that slow (lento) music reduced test anxiety, which in itself could improve test scores.  (1)  Other studies have shown that classical music can reduce blood pressure in heart patients, and there is a medical specialty called Music Therapy.

If you like having music on, but find some kinds of music distracting, perhaps music designed for meditation can help your focus during Finals Week.  In most cultures that practice meditation, its aim is to clear the mind of distracting thoughts.  Instrumental music - music without a vocal part - seems conducive to meditation, and may less distracting for study because you are only absorbing words from one place: your study materials.

The Music Collection has some music for relaxation so you can have your cake (music) and eat it too (focus on your work):

"New Age Music" as a subject often includes soothing music, but some is ethnically-oriented percussive music that could have the opposite effect!  We have selected a few albums and artists that may provide an optimal atmosphere:

Brian Eno's Discreet Music (1975) was one of the first electronic music works created for ambiance.  His album, Neroli (1993) is so calming it has been played in maternity wards.

Steven Halpern  was one of the leaders of the 1970s and 1980s "anti-frantic" music movement, with albums titled "Inner Peace" and "Effortless Relaxation."

Coyote Oldman is a duo that plays native American flutes in simple and soothing First Peoples-inspired styles.

George Winston,  a pianist, is one of the pioneers of New Age music though he also performs jazz and folk music.  He has recorded many albums for the quintessential New Age record label, Windham Hill.  His "Plains" celebrates the wide expanses of the American plains.

Yoga Lounge includes music of various tempos for yoga stretching but can be relaxing at any time.  The CD is from Putumayo, a record label that issues compilations of tracks from around the world in several series, including "Lounge" and "Playground."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

For a selection of relaxing classical music, try:
Meditations for a Quiet Night
Compact Disc 982

Some people find smooth jazz soothing.  Try CDs by Chris Botti (trumpet), Dave Koz (saxophone), Kenny G (soprano saxophone) or Brian Culbertson (piano),


References
(1)  Lai, H., Chen, P., Chen, C., Chang, H., Peng, T., & Chang, F. (2008). Randomized crossover trial studying the effect of music on examination anxiety. Nurse Education Today, 28(8), 909­916. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2008.05.011


Friday, April 22, 2016

R.I.P. Prince

The music world lost another innovative, creative musician this week:  Prince Rogers Nelson, a.k.a. "Prince" died on April 21 at age 57.  His albums won many Grammys and he achieved success as a songwriter as well.  He is best known for his film, "Purple Rain," and its soundtrack, and for the song "Party like it's 1999."  His blend of classic R&B sounds with modern synthesizers helped define the music of a generation.

Prince  (1979)
Compact Disc 15360

1999 (1983)

Purple Rain (1984)
Soundtrack:  Compact Disc 3666
DVD:  DVD Video 3932

Parade: Music from the Motion Picture "Under the Cherry Moon" (1986)

Sign "o" the Times (1987)

Black Album  (1988)

Diamonds and Pearls (1991)

1993:  The Hits & B-Sides (1993)

The Gold Experience  (1995)

Musicology  (2004)


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Miles Davis

Don Cheadle's character study of Miles Davis in the 2016 film, "Miles Ahead" has brought the music of Miles to a new generation of fans, though the film limits itself to the non-productive years of Miles's life: the late 1970s.  He had outlived many of his creative collaborators, becoming an "icon" rather than the revolutionary innovator he had been throughout his career.   Critics disagree about the film, but nobody questions Davis's complex character or his contribution to jazz.  Every list of "best" or "most iconic" or "most ground-breaking" or "must-hear" jazz albums includes at least one by Davis.

In the 1950s Miles was one of the foremost performers of bebop.  His Quintet and Quartet recordings remain some of the definitive bebop releases.  He headlined two quintets, the first with John Coltrane on saxophone, would release iconic bebop albums.  The second, starting in 1963, included players who would be the stars of the fusion movement that combined electrified other timbres and beats with jazz improv techniques.   The movement is known for combining rock music, but also brought in Brazilian percussion and other elements.

For more on Miles Davis, check out these books from the Music Collection.

Miles Davis Quintet (with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums)  This is the original bebop quintet that defined the genre.

1955:
  • Round About Midnight:  Recorded in 1955 by the Quintet for Columbia but released in 1957.  This album is considered by many to be the essential album from Davis's original Quintet.
    Compact Disc 15862
1956:

Miles as an innovator:
1957:
  • Miles Ahead features Miles soloing on flugelhorn with a big band directed by Gil Evans.  The same collaboration would result in Sketches of Spain in 1960.
    Compact Disc 13263
  • Birth of the Cool, one of the most highly regarded jazz albums of all time.  "Hot" jazz of the 1920s was defined by up-tempo, intensely rhythmic pieces meant for dancing.  "Cool" jazz would be known for softer sounds and more languid tempos.  The album was released in 1957, but was recorded in 1949 and 1950 by a nonet consisting of Davis and other innovators of the "cool" sound including Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.
    Compact Disc 16121
1958:

  • At Newport (issued in 1964) was recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival. Cannonball Adderley plays alto sax and Bill Evans is featured on piano
    Compact Disc 19012
1959:

  • Kind of Blue, #1 on the Village Voice's list of "Ten Jazz Albums to Hear before you die," this album features John Coltrane, Bill Evans on piano, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums).
    Compact Disc 16525
1960:
  • Sketches of Spain. Davis and Gil Evans reworked classical composer Joaquin Rodrigo's guitar concerto, "Concierto de Aranjuez," as a jazz piece highlighting Davis in a soloist role with accompaniment.
  • Compact Disc 7833
    Compact Disc 4927 (1997 reissue)

Fusion Years
In 1963 Miles assembled a new Quintet, with George Coleman
on tenor sax (soon to be replaced by Wayne Shorter, (later of
 Weather Report fame), Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter
on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.  Several albums include
this new combination of talent:
  • Seven Steps to Heaven, with the same group but with Victor Feldman replacing Hancock on some tracks.
    Compact Disc 19006

  • My Funny Valentine, recorded live in New York in 1964 at the same benefit concert that resulted in "Four & More"  The concert was dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy and raised money to support the Civil Rights Movement.
    Compact Disc 15596
  • Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965, Chicago) is a seven-disc set that features 10-20 minute versions of the Davis's best known  pieces from both the early days and the new group.
    Compact Disc 13227
  • Miles Smiles, with the new quintet, was recorded in 1966 and released in 1967.
    Compact Disc 18991
Read about this album's impact on jazz history:  Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop, by Jeremy Yudkin
ML 419 .D39 Y83 2008

  • Nefertiti, recorded in 1967, is considered "hard bop" but hints at the future direction of the members as creators of the fusion movement.
    Compact Disc 19435
1970:
  • Bitches Brew was a ground-breaking album that paved the way for experimental cross-over groups of the 1970s "fusion" movement.
  • Compact Disc 18300
    Compact Disc 3612 (1980s reissue with updated liner notes)
  • The Cellar Door Sessions:  Recorded at The Cellar Door in Washington, DC in 1970.  With Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Airto Moreira. 
  • Compact Disc 18253
1972:
  • On the Corner features funky bass, electric sitar and synthesizer among other new sounds not usually associated with Jazz.  With Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette.
    Compact Disc 17959
1986:

  • Tutu is a rather experimental album, with Davis as a soloist over dubbed performers.  He won a grammy award for this album.
    Compact Disc 7883
1989:
  • Amandla pairs Davis with a variety of performers, and the result is a multi-faceted album with influences from funk, African music, and electronic composition.
    Compact Disc 19520
1992:




Monday, April 18, 2016

Recent Jazz Acquisitions


During Spring Semester some fabulous jazz CDs have been added to the collection, as well as two books for performers:

Compact Discs:
John Coltrane.  Offering: Live at Temple University
Compact Disc 22794

Bill Frisell. East/West

Illinois Jacquet & Leo Parker.  Toronto, 1947

Fourplay.  Silver
Rudresh Mahanthappa.  Bird Calls

Brad Mehldau.  Live in Tokyo

Charles Mingus. The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-1965
Compact Disc 22802 (7 discs)

Houston Person.  Something Personal
Compact Disc 22704

Ben Webster and Associates
Compact Disc 22803

Brenna Whitaker
Compact Disc 22721

Wes Montgomery.  One Night in Indy
Compact Disc 22807

Books:
So You Want to Sing Jazz: A Guide for Professionals, by Jan Shapiro (sponsored by NATS)
MT 868 .S43 2016

Progressive Independence, Jazz: A Comprehensive Guide to Basic Jazz Drumming Technique, by Ron Spagnardi
MT 662.8 .S73 P7 2010

Friday, April 8, 2016

Outlaw Country and Merle Haggard

The music world lost an icon this week:  Merle Haggard died at the age of 79.  He was one of the last remaining musicians of the "Outlaw Country" genre.  This genre was in part a reaction against the clean-shaved, rhinestone-studded "Nashville Sound" of the 1960s.   With acoustic guitar and untutored vocal styles, combined with lyrics from the edges of society, the movement turned country music on its head and had wide crossover appeal.

Merle Haggard: 40 Greatest Hits:  Compact Disc 21410
The outlaw theme is typified in his classic song, "Mama Tried:"
And I turned twenty-one in prison
doing life without parole
No one could steer me right
but Mama tried, Mama tried 
Mama tried to raise me better,
but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame
                                'cause Mama tried.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson:  Django and Jimmie
Compact Disc 22799

Willie Nelson and Haggard collaborated on this album in 2015.  The title song acknowledges the influence of Django Reinhardt, the famous gypsy jazz guitarist of 1930s-1950s Paris, and Jimmie Rodgers, an influential white Southern blues musician ("The Singing Brakeman") of the 1920s and 1930s, known for his yodeling.

Willie Nelson's (b. 1933) "Red-Headed Stranger" (1975) tells the story of a heartbroken cowboy who kills a woman for touching his deceased wife's horse.
The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset
The stranger went free of course
For you can't hang a man for killing a woman
Who's trying to steal your horse.

Waylon Jennings (1937-2002) "Are you Sure Hank Done it This Way" (1975) is an homage to Hank Williams, Sr., and at the same time a jab at the Nashville style:
Lord it's the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here?
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars
It's been the same way for years
We need to change.

Hank Williams, Jr. (b. 1949) summed up his outlaw ways in "Family Tradition," a song referencing his famous (alcoholic) father:
So don't ask me, Hank why do you drink?
Hank, why do roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?
Stop and think it over,
try and put yourself in my unique position.
If I get stoned and sing all night long,
It's a family tradition!
Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003) a.k.a. "The Man in Black" is famous for singing "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" in the song, Folsom Prison Blues.

It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since, I don't know when
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin' on.

Nashville is no longer the rhinestone capital that it was when Elvis Presley and Porter Wagoner chased the long-haired, acoustic bad boys to Texas and beyond, but the bad boy idea lives on in lyrics that continue to be covered by today's artists.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April is National Poetry Month - The Most Poetic Singer-Songwriters?

This year marks the 20th annual National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets.  While not usually considered "poets," singer-songwriters are indeed poets, who happen  also to set their poetry to music.   A peak period of poetic creativity in song was the singer-songwriter era of the sixties and seventies.  Check out the music of these enduring lyricists:

Bob Dylan's way with words is so well respected that his song lyrics have been published separately from the melodies.  His 1964 song,"Chimes of Freedom," typifies his angry yet empathetic politics, and gift for turn of phrase:
Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Joni Mitchell was part of the singer-songwriter movement in folk revival circles.  Some of her lyrics have become synonymous with the period.   "I've looked at clouds from both sides now" (From Both Sides Now) or "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" from "Big Yellow Taxi" are lines that are part of the American cultural landscape.  "Both Sides Now" from the album Both Sides Now begins with these lines:
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun, they rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow it's cloud illusions that I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes cargo ship that went down in rough seas in 1975.  He created a story song reminiscent of old time sea shanties:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'gitche gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy


Don McLean's "American Pie" celebrated or bemoaned (depending on your interpretation) the history of rock 'n' roll during his lifetime.  Scholars and fans have discussed and debated the meaning of the lyrics since its 1971 release.

A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.


Many Beatles songs include innovative poetic ideas, turns of phrase,social and personal insights, or just nonsense syllables.  Like Dylan's, the Beatles Lyrics are profound and innovative enough to be immortalized in a book (ML421.B4 D385 2014)  Phrases from their songs have become classic quotations in their own right.  They'll take you to "Strawberry Fields," among other places:
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me
Let me take you down
Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever