Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Johann von Munster, provost of Pforzheim, writing in 1594:

“Once the order for the dance has been given to the wind and string players the dancer comes forward in a splendid, graceful, delightful and superb manner and chooses from amongst the ladies and girls present a partner for whom he feels particular affection, and asks her, with a bow, removing his hat, kissing her hands, bending his knee, with kind words and other ceremonies, if she is willing to share a happy and honest dance with him.

“Once her consent is obtained, both move forward holding hands and kissing each other -- even on the mouth -- and demonstrate mutual friendship by words and gestures. Then when they reach the dance, they begin with a certain gravity, without that disturbing agitation which is permitted in the second part of the dance, where more freedom is allowed. Conversation is best employed during the first part of the dance than in the second, where tight hand holding, secret taps, jumps, peasant screams and other improper things take place.

“But once the dance is over, the dancer escorts his partner back to her place and, with a bow, he either takes his leave of her or else he sits on her lap and talks to her.”

-- from the booklet notes to “Danses de la Renaissance,” by the Clemencic Consort, originally recorded in 1973.

Classical, or pop? Whatever -- because it’s old, it’s classical now. If it weren’t for records, Richard Rodgers would be classical now too, and Chuck Berry -- which is *really* old-fashioned music -- would be well on his way. It’s still seems to be OK to like the Beatles if you’re a teenager, but anything older -- it’s eccentric, and requires special clothes.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Here’s Jay:

“Pete Seeger played at Malcolm's school this morning as part of a activist/folk music gathering sponsored by a group called People's Music Network.

“He really is marvelous -- gotta be 80 or so by now. I've seen him a handful of times, from the early 80s when he was still in strong voice 'til now, as he sings in a authoritative whisper.

“Anyway, the performance was great (maybe another letter in that), but what happened later was really cool. A Japanese-American story teller (didn't catch her name) did a piece where she taught everyone a Japanese folk song about singing frogs (keke keke keke keke kwa kwa kwa was the refrain -- do re mi fa mi re do) -- a round in four parts. Pete stood in the back, singing along to himself, and as she was finishing up he sat up on a table, grabbed an envelope, quickly scribed as if with a staff, and jotted down the tune. He then ambles over to the poster she was using to lead the audience and jots the words down below the bars. He ran over it again silently mouthing it and stuffed it in his jeans pocket.

“Another song collected.”

JOHN REPLIES: I saw Pete Seeger in ‘90 or ‘91, in Chicago, a concert with Arlo Guthrie. Unforgetable show, Pete’s incredible musicianship, Arlo’s hilarious monologues, the feeling between them.

Pete Seeger is 85 now.


Carl Wilson wants to know who the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg of music is, while Jordan Davis isn’t too concerned that Helen Vendler can’t find the Auden of today’s under-30 crowd.

* * *

From Helen Radice comes the most welcome news that George Hunka is back blogging again, links page updated accordingly. And I want to thank George for posting this breathtaking Rembrandt painting of The Evangelist Matthew and the Angel, a portrait of an old bearded man writing, looking up startled with his hand on his chest as a young woman whispers something in his ear -- the young woman has wings -- Rembrandt’s unmatched genius for capturing the Dramatic Moment of Revelation, in this instance the Moment of Matthew’s Inspiration while Writing the Gospel -- I hadn’t seen this picture since it made me cry at the Louvre in 1987, and seeing it again takes my breath again and moistens my eyes again. Thanks, George, and thanks, especially, Mr. van Rijn. Wow.

* * *

The aforementiond Helen has a really cool post on the technological history of the harp, her instrument.

* * *

A couple nights ago I was grumpificating about how Frank Sinatra’s recording of John Hartford’s song “Gentle on My Mind” and Renee Fleming’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” (which I heard a year or so ago on “Prairie Home Companion”) both sound like the singers are slumming. I don’t regret criticizing Frank, because the sound of his voice is so bound with his persona, and his persona is so very wrong for that song. But I’m having second thoughts about dissing Ms. Fleming, whose voice was justly praised by the Seattle Weekly’s classical critic Gavin Borchert (scroll down) as “creamy and opulent.” My knee-jerk reaction is bound up with expectations of a quotidian, vernacular vocal sound to match the slangy idiom of pop songwords. I can’t get beyond my expectation, and my mind’s ear’s memory still doesn’t like Ms. Fleming’s version, but the problem may lie with me & my prejudices. Will continue to work on them.

* * *

Did I mention that my friend Andrew, who’s blogging his tourist-ing in Asia, is single?

Thursday, January 27, 2005


I like Frank Sinatra, he knows his way around a song, but some songs just don't fit. For instance, his version of the Glen Campbell hit "Gentle on My Mind" (written by John Hartford) -- it just sounds sleazy, Frank talking about leaving his sleeping bag rolled up behind some babe's couch. I mean -- as if!

Similarly, Glen Campbell's version of Bob Dylan's "If Not For You" -- altogether too smooth. The cliches which sound wryly, ironically sincere coming out of Bob's mouth just sound like cliches coming out of Glen's. "If not for you the sky would fall, rain would gather too" -- it's a terrible line, but it works when Bob sings it, because he knows it. (Pedantic parenthesis: what makes it terrible is that the second cliche is much weaker than the first. Bob makes it work because he's laughing at himself, while meaning it, mostly. [Double pedantic double parenthesis: I mean, Bob-voice or Bob-singer, having no opinion about Bob-person.])

Similarly, Renee Fleming's version of Joni Mitchell's "River." No, Renee, you're not "gonna quit this crazy scene." You and Frank -- you're slumming.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Woody has become the 2-year-old’s favorite singer, and so we listen almost every day lately. Luckily we have a few collections to choose from.

The more I listen, the more I like, and I’ve loved Guthrie since high school. His harmonica sound is uniquely robust and dusty at once, sounding like a calliope that’s been through a duststorm. I’ve always known him to be rhythmically virtuoso and most savvy, dramatically stretching out measures to suit the story and the song. What I’m loving more and more is his voice, the quality of his voice. He inherited from the Carter Family a stoic vocal affect coupled with a buoyant, urgent rhythmic drive. And this suits his political songs in a way that nobody since has touched. He never sounds angry. He has faith in people (THE people? -- not sure), that they’ll -- we’ll -- stick it out, hold our ground, get through, survive, prevail. And his urgent guitar rhythm and buoyant stoic powerful un-hysterical masculine voice embody that vitality and hope, even when the words are painting dire, dire pictures, as they often are -- he saw a lot, and didn't flinch.

He wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Originally Woody had it, “God blessed America for me” -- sardonic, sarcastic. One of his influences, Carl Sandburg, came up with a mean (and funny, if you happen to agree) parody lyric for Berlin’s tune, “Goddamn Republicans. . . .” Guthrie got beyond his sarcasm to something profound and even visionary.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


Some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Pete Seeger & Woody Guthrie were barnstorming the country, playing work camps and union halls and wherever they could. They played a lumber camp somewhere in the north country, for a bunch of Scandinavian American lumberjacks. Woody and Pete played a song. Silence. They played another. Dead silence. They played a third. Not a peep. They wrapped up and went to bed. Next morning, a lumberjack approached them and said, I don’t know why you stopped, I could have listened all night, it was so beautiful.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


(Updated with a postscript, 12:30 AM)

A few weeks ago when the estimable ACD was baiting theater buffs by suggesting that the exceedingly meticulous writer Samuel Beckett blew it by writing “Waiting for Godot” as a play rather than the allegedly more promising medium of film, I thought of a college prank that didn’t come off. Now ACD and Alex Ross are arguing over whether it should be OK for classical music audiences to applaud between movements of a multi-movement piece. I had a funny experience last May, when I really really wanted to applaud between movements during a chamber music concert. Protestant Northern Western Euro-male me ended up enjoying the repression of my instincts, since it built up to the orgasmic applause at the end, but on the whole I agree with Alex that a little loosening of the classical audience’s tie, a little bit of letting the hair down, wouldn’t be bad for the music. ACD, unsurprisingly, disagrees. The discussion is germane to the earlier one -- how the audience affects a performance; and that, as I said, reminds me of a story.

It was 1985 or so, in Ann Arbor, and I was sitting with a bunch of my theater comrades, with whom I had founded what became the now 20-year-old director-less institution Theater Oobleck. (And for some bracing, witty, political, modernist-post-modernist-pre-modernist, erudite manifesto-ism, check this out, which I had never read before now.) We were watching a magnificently, mind-bogglingly dreadful production of “Waiting for Godot,” produced for lots and lots of money by the university’s theater department. Alex and ACD have both inveighed against opera directors running ramshod over the original text; I can’t say I disagree, and they would have hated this.

Godot is famous for its sparse set. Beckett’s entire description of the set, from the stage directions, and I quote: “A country road. A tree.” The head of the theater department, who directed the show, managed to spend $5,000 on this set -- considerably more money 20 years ago than now. How, how could he do that? you ask. By setting the play at a highly stylized garbage dump and building a raked stage, and by mechanizing the tree so that it grows its leaves hydrolically. Really stupid, a real waste of resources -- the growing of the leaves happens between act one and act two; the mechanical growing had no theatrical moment -- [exasperated sigh].

The actors and director had no idea that Beckett was drawing on vaudeville in the script, and that when it's done right it's funny. (Bert Lahr starred as Estragon in the original American production.) These guys, reportedly professional actors flown in from New York, were playing it for soap opera angst. As Bob Dylan once said, I stand in awe and I shake my face.

Ross Lipman, the biggest Beckett fan among my friends, saved the evening from being a total waste when he whispered in someone’s ear, and that person passed it on, “If anyone goes up as Godot, I’ll pay their bail.” So the rest of the show stayed interesting as we waited for someone to do something, and thought about doing it ourselves. We didn’t.

That night, Ross, Jeff Dorchen, and I went back to the house Jeff and I shared with other people and wrote a monologue for Godot. We picked an opportune spot in the 2nd Act for his entrance. I don’t remember much of what we wrote -- a couple paragraphs, which included things like, “Hello? I’m Godot! What’s going on here? You look terrible! Let’s get going, let’s get going, I know you’ve been waiting a long time, and I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting, but I wanted to let you know that change is possible.” Exit.

We bought tickets and went again the next night. Jeff, by far the most commanding actor of the three of us, and who at the time had a bountiful beard, was going to play Godot as Commander McBragg. Ross was going to block his way up the aisle after the speech, and I was going to be in the back and “create a diversion.” On the cue for Godot's entrance Jeff abruptly stood up and, with a concentrated glow about him, silently walked out of the theater. Of course I can’t blame Jeff for changing his mind.

The story has a footnote: The night Jeff was going to play Godot, we had seen a very smart and charismatic and often quite mean theater professor we knew, in the audience glowering. A student of his with whom he was having an extra-marital affair was cheating on him with one of the actors, and he knew it, and he was freaking. Before the show Professor Rowlandson had sent a note backstage to the guy: “Mark, there will be a surprise for you in the audience tonight.” I was friends with Brenda, the student -- she told me about it months later, and when we put it together that our prank would have totally implicated the professor, with whom she had by now broken up, we had a big laugh.

(I’ve changed the names of the adulterers.)

P.S., a couple hours later. I've always liked this story, but now it feels ashy. How cocky, how smug, to condemn the poor actors and the idiotic director; conversely, how ineffectual, to lay the plan and not carry it out -- and I can't blame anybody else for that; I could have gone up as easily. I don't regret saying the director and the actors had no clue, and in a way it lends credence to ACD's point in the old debate on film v. theater -- that by publishing his script, the playwright leaves his work vulnerable to being completely misrepresented by fools. (Same is true of musical scores.) Truth be told, I still feel cocky and smug about it: that particular production of Godot really would have been improved if Godot had shown up.

The artist works to connect with people. We call these people "the audience." It's a complicated relationship.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Just tuning in to my friend John de Roo's live internet radio broadcast. Missed the first almost half hour due to working late.

* A song he wrote with his friend Reba Devine, "Coven in the Holler," written as if the Carter Family were pagans instead of Christians. Pretty funny, good Carter Family homage, with a real sincere chorus, "Merry we will meet, merry we will part, merry we will merry meet again, on this sacred ground, we will dance around, merry we will merry meet again." I miss Reba's harmony on it, but still good to hear.

* "Icarus Laments," John's setting of a poem by the man he is calling "Charles, or Charlie, or Chuck Baudelaire. The narrator is our friend Icarus, he of the melty wings." Beautiful song.

* "Boo Radley," a wonderful song from his most recent CD, "Gorgeous Lost." "I am Boo Radley in this town." Small town alienation, written when he was living in a really really small town. Good melody.

* A new song, the first one I haven't heard before, "Unlovable." John's gorgeous '60s-British-Invasion pop sense, a medium-tempo lush-a-rama, somehow Hollies-ish, almost Roy Orbison-esque, much more tremolo in the voice than John usually uses. "Never no more unlovable." Nice distinctive harmonica solo, he's an ace harmonicat.

* A studio cut from "Gorgeous Lost," one with Jay Sherman-Godfrey on banjo, minor key Woody Guthrie-esque with a lot of nonsense syllables, "Hibernation Song." "You can hear me sing if you listen in the Spring." Force of nature, but you gotta listen for him / it.

* Back to live in the studio, "My Love Is a Rider," open-tune blues number from an album he made 10 or so years ago, "The Trickster." (Update: Looked it up -- he made the album 13 or 14 years ago! Time flying!) Lovely mixolydian riff. (White keys on the piano, G to G; major scale with a minor seventh. Don't know what key the song's in.) Occasional nice traditional folk-blues extensions of measures with extra beats, something John & I started messing around with as students of the music about 20 years ago. "Little boat, little boat floating out to sea / Little boat, little boat you broke your anchor free / Ain't nothing in this world to come and anchor me."

* Another song from "Gorgeous Lost," "John Hurt." "It's about Mississippi John Hurt, the songster, not the actor." Exploring connections between the guitar styles of Hurt and Mother Maybelle Carter. Sweet melancholic song.

And that's it.

Oh! Another one, from the CD, with Jay on cello, "Wide Boulevards of Washington." Slow wistful lamenty dreamy ballad. Good-bye good-bye, wide boulevards of Washington.

Been good friends with the guy since we were 13-year-old junior high music freak weirdos, started playing music together with him and Jay a year later, 27 years ago now. Big country, I miss my family. Great to hear a couple of them on live computer radio. Makes me miss 'em more.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


I got this e-mail from my friend John de Roo, who made one of the top albums of Y2K4 (my proposal for this decade’s name -- the Y2K’s), “Gorgeous Lost,” which you can get only by going to one of his shows. It’s a moody collection of lovely songs great for broody late night listening. He lives in Tucson, and he’s playing on the radio Monday night. In his words:

“Dear Friends and Music Lovers,

“On Monday, January 24, I'll be performing live on KXCI's ‘Locals Only’ from 9 to 10 p.m. Mountain Time. This is a great weekly program that showcases local talent on Tucson's community radio station. The show runs from 8 to 10, but my segment starts at 9. To listen in on your computer, just go to kxci.org and click on ‘Listen Live,’ then click the appropriate MP3 stream.”

John has written dozens of great songs over the years. He is also an ace guitarist in the folk rock vein and a great singer -- and now you can hear him.

* * *

An e-mail from my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, who is John de Roo’s only accompanist on “Gorgeous Lost,” contributing lead guitar, cello, keyboards, and banjo. He sends exciting news:

“Folkways goes digital.

“This is exciting...


“It's what low-cost digitial distribution really offers -- the whole enchilada.”

In addition to all the songs from the classic Folkways catalogues of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly, which are now available for 99 cents apiece at music.msn.com, “Folkways released jazz, world music, classical and avant-garde music, albums by songwriters like Phil Ochs and Lucinda Williams, and beloved oddities like ‘Sounds of North American Frogs,’ which has track titles like ‘Chorus of Barking Treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa).”

Folkways released lots and lots of environmental field recordings, such as Cable Car Soundscapes. Some of the Folkways documentarians, if I recall correctly, were interested in creating an archive parallel to photograph archives of vanishing cityscapes, whose soundscapes change almost as drastically, though somehow often less noticeably. My internet connection would have a difficult time downloading a 12 minute cable car soundscape, but some day, I’ll get there.

* * *

My friend professional provocateur Andrew Boyd, who has published books of boiled-down wit and tangled wisdom, is on the road and blogging about it, at least occasionally.

Happy trails, Andrew! Don’t forget to write!

* * *

Playwright and blogger George Hunka has decided to take a long hiatus from blogging as he concentrates on writing a new play. Congratulations George! I’ll miss reading your blog, and I applaud your decision to concentrate on the higher magic of theater. Congrats also on the successful staged reading of your most recent play.


On the Beatles first two (English) albums, 5 girl group cover songs:

1. "Chains," written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, lead vocal by George, original by the Cookies.
2. "Boys," lead vocal by Ringo, original by the Shirelles, now widely believed to be the greatest of the girl groups, song co-written by the Shirelles' main producer and songwriter, Luther Dixon.
3. "Baby, It's You," music by Burt Bacharach, lead vocal by John, original by the Shirelles.
4. "Please Mr. Postman," lead vocal by John, original by the great Motown group the Marvelettes, song co-written by 5 people on the Motown staff including hall-of-famer Brian Holland.
5. "Devil In Her Heart, lead vocal by George, original by I-don't-remember-and-had-never-heard-of-them-anyway, song by someone named Drapkin.

Interesting: Of the five songs, 3 are by hall-of-fame songwriters and one by a should-be hall-of-famer. The Fabs could pick 'em.

And: Paul has been historically dissed as the soft one, but he's the only one who didn't sing a girl-group lead. The girl group songs weren't soft, but they were vulnerable. Paul was the macho one.


Duke Ellington was famously diplomatic; his incredibly charming memoir, "Music Is My Mistress," contains scarcely a cross word for anybody. One of the few public imbroglios of his 50-year very public career was with George Gershwin, whose "Porgy and Bess" he allegedly dissed in terms not unlike criticisms made by Virgil Thomson. I say allegedly because Ellington denied making the criticism and accused the reporter who quoted him of lying. The one point he admitted to making was that Gershwin's music was not in the Negro idiom as the subject matter demanded. This is very close to Thomson's critique that the opera is fake folklore about people perfectly capable of expressing their own folklore themselves.

Almost 40 years later, when Ellington wrote his memoir, he had nothing but praise for Gershwin -- though praise of a possibly sly sort. Lavishly complimenting Gershwin's temperament and character, he neglects to mention Gershwin's music, except to say how proud he was to hear that Gershwin had told Oscar Levant he wished he had written the bridge to Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." Not that Duke's avowal of flattery wasn't necessarily sincere. It's just, hmmm.

What intrigues me more about Duke's memoir is who gets left out. The narrative chapters are broken up by profiles of Duke's band members, friends, colleagues, relatives. He calls these mini-essays "Dramatis Felidae" -- "Cast of Cats." Glowing sketches of Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Fletcher Henderson, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Rushing, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, many more. Every widely-remembered Harlem stride pianist of the 1920s but one gets heaps of praise, as does Duke's co-noble-swing-band champ Count Basie. The one exception: nowhere is Count's teacher and major influence Fats Waller mentioned. Surely he and Duke crossed paths in the small world of top-flight 1920s New York jazz composers and stride pianists. Fats, five years Duke's junior, was a successful Broadway songwriter in the '20s, while Duke never succeeded in his lifelong ambition to conquer Broadway. Hmmm.

By 1926 Duke Ellington was a top-flight jazz composer and already an unparalleled bandleader, two reputations he continued to build for the next 47 years in an unparalleled career. In 1971, at the age of 72, he was making the most dissonant music of his life, on the spectacular album "Afro-Eurasian Eclipse," some of which is set to a rock and roll beat. Speculation on characterological enigmas on the margins of his public pronouncements is just so much gossip. His music -- that's the thing. And if you want charming gossip along with deeply felt memoir, his book is great too.

Friday, January 21, 2005


The grammarians say that English isn’t a gendered language, but the socio-linguists know better.

Everybody knows, animals are “he” until proven otherwise. Go to a zoo some time and listen to how people talk.  In children’s books too, animals are usually “he.”  Except sometimes mice.  And hippos.  Don’t ask me why.

I enjoy being a boy, but sometimes I envy the freedom of middle aged diner waitresses who can call everybody “honey” or “sweetie.”  There are times when I want to call everybody “honey” or “sweetie” too.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Rock and roll has always been a gerrymandered catchall term.  Which is why tracing its history is so vexed.   

Did very many ‘60s soul musicians figure that they were working the same turf as Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash?  Hip hop artists trace their lineage to George Clinton and James Brown and reggae; some say Chicago blues; maybe some say gospel, I don’t know.  Country has nothing to do with any version of their story that I’ve seen, and I can’t see how they’re wrong.

Thing is, lotsa rock bands today don’t trace their lineage any back farther than the Byrds or the Beatles; or, for a different stripe of band, the Dead Kennedys, who were serious rhythmic innovators (and wild showmen – I saw them once).  Ten or 11 years ago I jammed with a local drummer who’d been on tour with a punk band that had an album out on the small local label C/Z.  I was trying to describe the feel I wanted for a song – “you know, ‘70s New York punk, a Patti Smith – Television type thing.”  The guy had never heard of Patti Smith or Television.  He was in his mid 20s, really nice guy, not a bad drummer, a touring punk rock pro.  And he had no clue about his stylistic lineage -- not even the punk rock part of it!

This blithe ignorance to art history – it doesn’t occur in jazz.  I heard a silky shantoozy singing somebody’s words to Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now” on the radio today. And the lazy sultry beat really had no more to do with King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band -- or Monk’s idol James P. Johnson -- than the Dead Kennedys have to do with Carl Perkins; and yet no jazz player that I’ve heard of is anything other than reverential to (at least most of) the jazz past.

Can you imagine a non-relationship to the genre’s past in classical?  “Oh, I compose choral music, I’m really into melody and counter-melody and really dense harmonies.  Palestrina? Handel?  Faure?  Never heard of them.”

Interestingly, there’s a parallel today in slam poetry -- the first poetry movement where a significant percentage of the practitioners have no conscious relationship to past poetry.  It’s not a question of hostility, there’s no Oedipal thing going on.  From what I can tell as a fairly interested outsider, it’s just pure liberated here-and-now indifference.  I can’t personally relate, but a significant part of me admires the focus, the blithe and healthy freedom to make the art with no worries about art-historical originality, the devotion to the flow.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Asked last night (in the wee hours of today, if you believe clocks) the source of rock and roll handclaps. Speculated: I bet the Jordanaires had clapped their hands on record before Elvis hired them. They were a gospel quartet.

Tonight, driving home from work late, 7:40 or so, listening to the “where the music matters” local college station, hearing a gospel group from the ‘30s or ‘20s, or, heck, I’m not sure -- it sounded OLD: guitar, blown jug for a bass, squeaky harmonica, a group of caterwaulish women singing rough unisons, and, for percussion -- handclaps! On the backbeats, the 2 and the 4, like Sinatra with his finger snaps. Only hot -- not cool.

Looking at the station’s playlist, I’m pretty sure it was Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers that I heard. Recorded between 1928 and 1930.

Gospel being a naturally social music, the handclap percussion section makes sense to me.

Gotta love the handclaps.


I’m in over my head, trying to follow the various streams in the sea of song to their several sources; the currents carry me up and down; the waves pitch over my head and I don’t know what I’m doing. Ultimately it’s a fool's errand; the streams have so interblended over the centuries that untangling them is impossible -- who can untangle water? Just click my soggy heels three times and I’m back on dry land, but I see others swimming out here with me, and that makes me want to keep swimming.

Specifically, arguing over the roots of rock and roll, and whether the “blues + country” myth overstates the importance of country to the story.

The myth, I’ve been arguing, does indeed overstate the importance of country in the equation, since lots of styles associated with rock and roll have at most a marginal influence from country. But. I’ve been oversimplifying.

Last spring I read Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot by David Wondrich, a terrific book that argues that North American vernacular music gets its unique combination of backbeat (stomp) and syncopation (swerve) from separate sources. The stomp comes from Ireland; the swerve from Africa. Places like Cuba or Brazil, says Wondrich, where the European rhythmic influence isn’t nearly as pronounced, enjoy much more rhythmically complex popular music than our ragtime, gospel, blues, jazz, swing, country, rock, funk, or techno. And, says Wondrich, the Celtic influence is in all of that music.

For a long time I couldn’t understand the appeal of Irish instrumental music. (Which, by the way, didn’t adopt the guitar as a standard instrument until the 1950s.) But then I heard a recording of a solo fiddle tune recorded in the 1920s -- to quote Wondrich, it stomped. And it occurred to me -- this is dance music. Eastern European dance music is quite different; it can do its own stomp in what sounds like odd rhythms to our American ears. This Irish stomp has a backbeat, you can’t lose it.

On a related note, though I implied possible racist motivation in the theoretical promotion of country to one of two parent style-progenitors of rock and roll, I don’t believe that racism was an important motive at all. As I said, the promotion was more about a devotion to blue-collar class imagery (and an aversion to religion). Race is part of the picture, though, and I didn’t want to ignore it. Still, as Wondrich shows, race is always more complex than it appears, in music as anywhere else.

In the comments to Sunday night’s post on all this, esteemed critic and blogger Carl Wilson says that I’m downplaying country’s influence too much, since Elvis was the single biggest influence on ‘60s rock. In my response in the comments I said that while Elvis was a huge inspiration, nobody in the ‘60s really sounded like him. But I’ve been thinking further about it. And what I’ve been thinking about is “Hound Dog.”

Elvis’s fierce vocal and Scotty Moore’s ripping guitar solo have been justly celebrated; drummer D. J. Fontana hasn’t been praised as often as Moore, but Levon Helm singled him out as a monster. What hasn’t been as much discussed is the contribution of the Jordanaires, Elvis’s background singers. I assume it’s they who do the rhythmically hip handclaps, a pop usage that’s all over the Beatles’ early records and shows up in such unexpected places as Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” though almost always in simpler form. I don’t know whether any doo wop groups or gospel groups were doing the handclaps before then. Note: That’s a question: I don’t know. The Jordanaires were a gospel singing group; I’m guessing that “Hound Dog” is not the first time they clapped on record. Maybe the Beatles got the handclaps from another source, but why not from Elvis?

The Jordanaires also lay down a lush blanket of vocal harmony under Scotty Moore’s jagged guitar leads. Tough rock purists may think of the Jordanaires’ part here as too sugared, but lots of ‘60s and ‘70s rockers disagreed; I love the contrast between their parts and Moore’s. I don’t know whether choral backing to instrumental improvisation happened in earlier rock, pop, blues, or country. I’m guessing not, or at least not often, and that Elvis made it popular.

He wasn’t called the king for nothin’.

One more thing: I’ve been too hard on rock criticism. As my friend Jake has testified, critics usually do a good job of placing new music within usefully identifiable stylistic boundaries. My specific complaint against the "blues + country" myth has been addressed very beautifully by Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul and Robert Palmer in Rock & Roll, an unruly history (which I'm still reading). Also in Hear that Long Snake Moan by Michael Ventura, which, by unusual circumstances, I read almost as soon as it came out in 1987, but that's another story.

UPDATE, January 19, 11:45 pm: Evidence regarding the roots of musical handclaps came to me through the airwaves today

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I've updated my links page. A friend with whom I frequently correspond and whom I see once a year or so told me that she's been keeping a "live journal" for 3 years now. It's pseudonymous and personal; her writing is often poignant and sometimes hilarious. She's a theater person. Check out Of Human Badinage.


Several days ago my friend and former bandmate Bob Jacobson e-mailed me his thoughts on my post where I cite Ned Sublette, author of “Cuba and Its Music,” as an authority that Cuban music influenced early rock and roll. Here’s Bob:

“I must read Sublette's book, for this is something I have been thinking about since getting involved in playing Afro-Cuban music for the last several months. Just some ad hoc thoughts not grounded in any greater-than-average knowledge of either the history of Cuban music or the history of rock. My half-assed theory places Cuban music as a sort of detour between Africa and rock, specifically a detour down Clave Road. Traditional African music contributed to Cuban and other Latin musics, among other things, the clave. The classic 3-2 clave, the most fundamental element of Cuban music, is found in early rock, but only as a highly specialized "exotic" groove. We call it the "Bo Diddly beat." In Afro-Cuban music, the Bo Diddly beat is the most elementary of grooves, kindergarten level. And the Bo Diddly part is only one aspect of it; you have to layer other percussion stuff on top of it--the special cowbell thing, the "cascara" spiel on the shell of the timbales. Even the shape of the bass line is determined by the clave. Then, once all that stuff is in place, you can get rid of the explicit clave entirely; it's just implied by all the other parts built on top of it, kind of like building a house of cards and then pulling selected cards out of the bottom floor. Rock does not even have a label for the equally elementary 2-3 clave, which you can hear in such tunes as "Our Love's in Jeopardy." I can't think of a single rock tune, early or otherwise, that is based on a rumba clave, which is like a 3-2 but with the third hit delayed half a beat, which makes it sound more like a 2-3 variant. Early rock was simply not allowed to get so rhythmically complex. It's as if the primal Rock Mama had read "Cuban Music for Dummies," and left it at that. The worst thing you can do in Cuban music is get the clave turned around backwards. In rock there's no danger of that happening. The beat is square. Whichever way you turn it, it's still square.
“Which is not to say that there is not plenty of early rock containing rhythmic intricacies. Well, maybe not plenty, but some. But those intricacies are (a) only rarely rooted in the intricacies of the Cuban clave family; and (b) way less intricate than the intricacies of Cuban dance music. A beginner playing Cuban pop will frequently have no idea where the hell the downbeat is. That does not happen in rock. It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it.
“The point of all this inane rambling being that, in my opinion, while there is probably a demonstrable historic relationship between Cuban music and American rock, I would tend to liken it to the relationship between the lemur and the orangutan. They have common ancestors and share certain traits, but neither was a major influence on the the other's development.”

JOHN REPLIES: This discussion has postponed my reading of “Cuba and Its Music,” while I read “Rock & Roll, an unruly history,” by Ned Sublette’s friend Robert Palmer (who has since died). Palmer quotes Fats Domino’s songwriting partner, bandleader, and record producer Dave Bartholomew as saying that the classic ‘50s rock bass lick -- an arpeggiated major chord, 1-3-5, on a clave rhythm (3+3+2) -- he originally borrowed from an old Cuban record. But you may be right that the rhythm survived independently in North America anyway; Bo Diddley’s use of the beat certainly feels indigenous. The 3 + 3 + 2 rhythm underlays Scott Joplin’s gorgeous “Solace, A Mexican Serenade” too; even 100 years ago North Americans felt that beat to be from south of the border.

Monday, January 17, 2005


“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative of this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.” -- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

Sunday, January 16, 2005


A friend forwarded a link to my post on the myth that blues + country = rock and roll, to a subscription e-mail list of serious roots music fans, critics, and scholars. The gathered professors of roots music -- including contributors to the leading roots music mag, No Depression, and one of the authors of a book on "Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles" -- raised the following valid objections to my oversimplified reaction to the oversimplified blues-country equation.

My posts falsely implied that (black) blues and gospel musicians weren't listening to (white) country and (white and black) pop musicians. Not my intention to imply that, but I can see how someone could think I meant to.

More specifically, people pointed out that I was wrong say that country didn't have any discernable influence on Fats Domino. They cited country songs in his repertoire, which is interesting and considerable but in itself inconclusive evidence -- Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong recorded Hank Williams songs too, and I wouldn't say that their musical styles were notably influenced by country. But then I found 2 quotes in Robert Palmer's book "Rock & Roll, an unruly history." First, Fats Domino scored more '50s hits than any other rocker besides Elvis. Second, his bandleader, record producer, and co-songwriter, Dave Bartholomew, "believes an important element in Fats Domino's broad appeal was that while he played boogie woogie and blues, he sang more like a country and western artist." This is conclusive evidence.

Carl Wilson answered my original question -- how did the "blues + country" myth represent an improvement in understanding? Easy, said Carl -- it was replacing an even more simplistic myth that "the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll." Good point; still, more nuanced versions of the story were in circulation at the time people started pushing the blues + country myth.

Glad to get the feedback. And exciting (if sometimes embarrassingly humbling) to get schooled!

I have at hand two sources for the blues + country myth. "The Rock Story, The Names, The Faces, The Sound That Turned On A Generation," By Rolling Stone Editor Jerry Hopkins, from 1970 begins with this sentence: "The roots are in blues and country."

The doubly-datedly titled "Rock Revolution, From Elvis To Elton -- The Story Of Rock And Roll," By The Editors Of CREEM Magazine, from 1976, begins with these sentences: "The origins of rock 'n' roll have been repeated so often it sounds like a litany. Black blues and white country music were the basis of rock 'n' roll."

So by 1976 the myth was well established. The origin of the myth is unknown to me, but "Rolling Stone" magazine was involved in its dissemination, if not its creation.

Reading past their openings, both books make it clear that they are going to include gospel in the story, but only as a subset of "blues." Many people subscribe to the notion; I think it muddles understanding. While influence has gone both ways, and both fields of music share roots in 19th century African American spirituals, gospel has always had rhythms, solo vocal styles, duo vocal styles, group vocal styles, and typical instrumentation recognizably distinct from those of the blues. For example, piano plus organ is rare in blues, but not in gospel, or in rock and soul. The interweaving piano, organ, and electric guitar on Sister Rosetta Tharpe's magnificent 1956 album "Gospel Train" influened Bob Dylan's studio band of 1965 as much as it did the mid '60s music of Aretha Franklin.

And sometimes when I lather myself up about all this I'm in danger of forgetting that the nub of it all is to -- listen to the music!

Friday, January 14, 2005


"Read the National Arts Journalism criticism pieces you linked with great interest. I especially enjoyed Christgau and SFJ (I like SFJ's print voice over his blog voice). It got me thinking.

"I wanted to expand on SFJ's Subject/Object analysis. He brushes on something at the end, in that the musician/critic has a greater interest in "longitudinal history" of music as opposed to the lay critic's here and now approach. I think this is an important distinction. In search of novelty and through a self-serving need to promote exclusivity, music critics on the whole overplay genre. Especially with the myriad sub- and sub-sub-genres exploding in rap and dance music. It's just silly, and the artificial divisions are bad for music. I think the musician/critic, especially one who has first-hand knowledge of a number of musical styles, has a better grasp of the underlying sameness of American popular music. I, for example, find it easy to hear Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong as musical kin, whereas many a layperson cannot get past the superficial stylistic differences. I practically divide the world into people who understand this and people who don't. The critics who SFJ refers to as "experts in hearing and understanding lateral connections," Christgau, et al, are of course tuned into this. It reminds me of an office- workmate who was crazy for Springsteen and Dylan, could make the leap to Guthrie (but would never actually listen to him) but not to Hank Williams or The Kingston Trio. Couldn't (wouldn't) hear it.

"Following on this, I would say that lay critics are more apt to feed the notion that powerful music must be all mystery and magic, somehow channeled rather than created, spawn of the Robert Johnson at the Crossroads myth (as handy as "country and blues had a baby"?). Isn't inspiration enough? A musician, or better yet a composer of music, knows from inspiration (and lack of it) and blood-sweat-and-tears craft (I was so heartened to see the phrase "musician craftsman" in SFJ's piece). Some of course play along, but most I know smile at the hyperbole. I like critics who bring it down to earth, and for me these are mostly musicians; Ian McDonald comes to mind as one of the best. But I can understand why a fan might want to keep the idols in the air."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Had an idea for a short sharp blogpost today, but didn't write it down and -- poof! -- she was gone! -- leading to this short stale blogpost about the partial replacement of memory by literacy, something we've been talking about since at least the time of Gutenberg (ne Gensfleisch, = "gooseflesh" or "goosemeat") -- paging Matteo Ricci! Mr. Ricci, please come to the information desk!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Some further thoughts on last night’s post on rock history.

* More examples regarding my contention that lots of early rock and roll had nothing to do with country: Little Richard. James Brown. Fats Domino.

* It’s not just blues, gospel, and pop (and country too) that influenced rock and roll: jazz too (sez Robert Palmer, and he’s right); and Cuban music (sez Ned Sublette, whose book I recently got as a gift and which I’m digging big time).

* The blues and country did have a baby, and they called it rockabilly, but of the several original rock and roll styles rockabilly had the least influence on ‘60s rock. (Except maybe via surf guitar?)

* Country did have a big influence on rock and roll, but it came in the ‘60s, and it came heavily filtered. Dylan’s influence was huge; his primary influences were Woody Guthrie and the music anthologized by Harry Smith; 75% or so of Woody’s style came out of the Carter Family; the Carter Family and half the people on the Harry Smith anthology played what was known then as country.

* Country started having a direct influence on rock starting with the Byrds’ third album and the subsequent country rockers. (Or was Ringo the original country rocker?)

* Typo embarrassment: When I said last night that Robert Christgau’s self-proclaimed deanery has been ratified by general acclimation, I meant to say acclamation. Major oops!

I’m hopeful to read other people’s thoughts on these matters. [UPDATE, January 16: I take valid objections to my critique of the blues + country myth into account here.] And I’m happy to read my musically literate friend Jake London’s defense of music criticism by people who lack technical knowledge of music. From here on out this post is Jake’s:

"I'm about half done with the Dylan book. I agree that one of the great things about it is the way he writes from so inside the music making process. Sometimes it's beyond my comprehension. Sometimes it's much simpler than one might imagine ("I just thought it was cool").

"I think people who understand the process from doing it ultimately do serve our knowledge of the subject better, because they understand both the genius and the mundane humanity that goes into it. Then there's just the less than magical reality of trying to make a living doing it.

"But I think people who don't have those music language skills may serve the market better, because they experience music more like the fans. As such, they are able to project things onto the finished work and in a sense create a derivative/value added version of work that in some cases is far more magical than the work would be on its own. Remember the power of context. In many cases, that's what these people provide.

"Most non-musician pop music fans would have little or no vocabulary to discuss pop music if critics weren't setting the tone here. And most of these critics don't have the skills you talk about. Often these critics take their cues from the musicians and appropriate vocabulary from them. But more often than not, the critics really are the ones doing the heavy lifting, painting word pictures of the music. Whether these word pictures are accurate in some music speak empirical sense is kind of beside the point. What's important is that they resonate with the critic's readership. So if the critic wants the audience to know that something is good, the critic wants his or her words to be received by the audience that way (and vice versa).

"I am fluent in translating between critic speak and music speak. It happens pretty regularly that I can identify a song by a band I've never heard simply based on reviews I've read of this band's music. That's because certain archetypes are so ingrained in rock music today that as long as the critic is skilled enough to evoke them accurately, a reader with some skills can translate this into a sonic reference point that is meaningful and by extension useful."

[JOHN COMMENTS: Thanks Jake!]


I thought about it this week-end and then forgot about it today until I saw the date written down after I got home from work: I started blogging a year ago today. It’s a nice feeling. Blogging is a good medium for throwing quick impressions into circulation, for following thoughts as they evolve over a few days, and for taking part in passionate polyphonic public discussions with strangers. Please feel free to join in if you haven’t already.

In honor of Utopian Turtletop’s blogiversary I was going to tell the world about a discovery I had made through my recent change in reading habits. I am not surprised to find via Google that someone has gotten there before me. Lucky for you, this other blogger has a scanner and a way to post photos, so if you haven’t seen it already, you should check out the original Blogg.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Via Carl Wilson (who’s fighting the nicotine beast), comes a pdf of lively, thoughtful, interesting pieces on cr-cr-critical issues in music criticism. Sasha Frere-Jones chastens my music-literacy snobbery by arguing that technical musical knowledge (which he possesses) can get in the way of communicating the experience of music, and can lead to the critic valorizing technique above innovation, energy, inspiration -- a useful warning, and I agree that the music illiterates Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Ann Powers have written terrific rockcrit. I’m especially sensitive to the issue because I just read Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” and all the way through I was so moved by the sensation that Dylan was writing from *inside* the experience of music in a way that isn’t available to very many people. Sasha is right that you don’t have to know the names of the notes in order to be inside the experience of music, but I still stick with my prejudice, that consciousness of how it feels to make a thing, and consiousness of how the minor seventh chord declining to the flatted-fifth saddens the harmonic stream through which the melody flows -- can enhance writing-as-writing. Good writing does not depend on technical knowledge, but how can technical knowledge hurt a good writer? Amusing coincidence -- just the other day author, blogger, music critic, and political columnist Eric Alterman was complaining at his blog that only people who have written books should be allowed to review them professionally. Ahem. As far as I have been able to discern, Mr. Alterman’s music criticism does not enjoy the benefit of musical literacy.

Illuminating all of this is a handy history of journalistic rock criticism by the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics (since ratified by general acclimation), Robert Christgau, which precedes Sasha’s piece at the pdf. Christgau is good on the early history of rock journalism -- I hadn’t known that Richard Goldstein was the first regular rock critic at a major publication, starting at the “Village Voice” in 1965. But Christgau glides over a key event in rockcrit history, and I want some answers, please.

By the late ‘60s, he says, and the advent of the “Rolling Stone” magazine juggernaut, “Blues-and-country-had-a-baby and Sgt.-Pepper-begat-the-concept-album proved handy origin myths.” While Christgau qualifies these and other coins-of-the-rockcrit-realm as “generalizations . . . so sketchy they approach caricature,” he acknowledges that “they sum up the ideology that underlies some gnostic gospel or other at ‘Spin’ and ‘Creative Loafing’ alike, and even in the dailies, where tastes and stylebooks can get pretty hidebound, they pertain big-time.” I should say so.

What Christgau doesn’t quite say is that the myth that blues and country begat rock-and-roll was an American intellectual innovation of the late ‘60s. Music writing before rockcrit started getting institutionalized told the story differently. The liner notes of Elvis’s second RCA album ID rock and roll’s progenitors as blues, country, gospel, and pop. The great jazz critic Martin Williams, in a piece called “One Cheer for Rock and Roll!” from 1965, identified “Negro rhythm and blues” and “Negro gospel music” as rock’s primary “stylistic forebears.” In the first great book on rock (as far as I know, and it’s still one of the greatest), “Rock From the Beginning,” which appeared in 1969, British writer Nik Cohn said that rock ‘n’ roll “was a mixture of two traditions -- Negro rhythm ‘n’ blues and white romantic crooning.”

In these three examples, blues (or rhythm and blues) is mentioned all three times, pop (or crooning) and gospel mentioned twice each, and country mentioned once as the ancestors of rock and roll. This ratio better reflects musical reality than the accepted myth. Sure, rockabilly and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” wouldn’t have happened without the influence of country, but country isn’t anywhere to be heard in doo wop or girl group, both of which owe a debt to gospel, and both of which were much more influential on subsequent rock than was rockabilly. Motown owes a huge debt to girl group and doo wop, and just about everything since then except metal and punk owes a huge debt to Motown.

The “Rolling Stone” coterie eliminated pop and gospel from the creation myth. Robert Christgau says this was handy. I can think of a few ways why and how it could have been handy, and none of them are flattering, and I’m sure they’re not what Robert Christgau meant.

Elevating country to be one of two primary parents inflates the apparent influence of white people on the rock and roll style. I can see how this could be handy for white people’s self image and for sales, but it doesn’t actually increase knowledge -- in Christgau’s terms, it’s something worse than “pretty dumb.”

Less immediately insidiously, elimating pop and gospel from the story is “handy” because it allows “rock criticism [to embrace] a dream or metaphor of perpetual revolution,” as Christgau rightly says rockcrit did. Pre-rock pop, with its middle class yearnings, is not a revolutionary mode; gospel, with its religious mandates, isn’t either -- at least not according to white people who aren’t hip to the history of the civil rights struggles. Now, I know that Christgau happens to be hip to the church’s centrality in the civil rights struggles, which makes it particularly disappointing that he lets this myth slide. (And hey Mr. Professional Writer, envying the blogger’s unlimited word count isn’t going to win you any sympathy in this discussion, should you choose to discuss -- it’s no excuse.)

Country and blues aren’t particularly revolutionary modes either, but -- aha! -- they are blue-collar identified, as pop isn’t, and without benefit of clergy, as gospel is a blue collar genre too. And the “Rolling Stone” coterie pinned their revolutionary metaphor on class imagery. Not actual class struggle (at least not in most cases), but class imagery.

As a result of this revolution in class imagery, men no longer have to wear hats in public, women no longer have to wear dresses, blue jeans are no longer the sole property of outdoor laborers, and rich people can easily pass themselves off as middle class. While I enjoy casual Fridays as much as the next hippie, the biggest beneficiaries of this revolution in imagery have been the wicked oppressing rich. Meet John Doe, baby, I’d rather have a beer with (that alcoholic) George Bush than that snob John Kerry, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich talked about a revolution too, and Fox News is so far the only broadcaster to abandon the traditional brass & drum sound for a wailing electric guitar.

The biggest loser in rockcrit’s embrace of revolutionary class imagery and blue collar myths of origin has been music criticism. When the origin myth flies in the face of the musical facts, maintaining the boundaries of the genre becomes more about policing the imagery and ideology than about listening to the sound. This pertains to the recent blog-discussion of misogyny in hip hop -- as I said then, Rock Loves the Bad Boy. In music history, about the time of the launch of hip hop (or shortly after -- my history is amateurishly fuzzy here), techno and house were taking off too. The ideology police of “Rolling Stone” and its stylistic descendants embraced rap as the new rock bad boy and left the true musical “revolutionaries” have their hedonistic all-night dance parties without nearly as much glare of media attention. Techno and house had it all over hip hop in the rhythmic innovation department, and were its equal in the sonic (or tone color) innovation department too -- and they were both equally the children of the funk (and the grandchildren of Motown, and the great-grandchildren of gospel). The ‘50s rock-and-roll explosion was all about the hedonism, but the late ‘60s rockwriters fell in love with rebellion, and so stay-at-home-on-my-butt radio listener and magazine reader me knows the big names of hip hop, but all I know about techno is the scraps I’ve heard in coffee shops and on the radio and the occasional all-ages rave I crashed as a chubbifying 30-something. (“Not bad,” a very well-dressed 16 year old stranger once said as he patted me on the shoulder as I sweatily and sloppily left the dance floor -- a compliment I will cherish till the grave.) Nobody to blame for that but me, but a rockcrit as interested in music as much as ideology and imagery could have helped me out here.

If “blues-and-country-had-a-baby” was a “handy myth” in other ways, I sure would be interested to know just how.

UPDATE Jan. 11, 10:00 pm: Further thoughts here, including a confession regarding my confusion about the difference between acclimation and acclamation. I meant to say the latter, not the former.

Friday, January 07, 2005


Tuesday morning the dental hygienist was torturing my gums and chatting engagingly. She’s in a band. Yeah? What’s the name of your band? Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks. She’s Jo. No, I don’t know them. She used to be in a band called Ranch Romance. Oh yeah, I’ve heard them! Western swing! Good band!

Well, it turns out they play the first Thursday at a little bar called the Little Red Hen, just north of Green Lake on Woodlawn, and really good dancers show up, it's a lot of fun. And so tonight my beloved spouse and I got a babysitter and went, and the band was great -- solid Western Swing, in-the-pocket rhythm section, solid accordian, solid lead guitar, good harmony singing -- and the dancers were great, and Jo came and talked to us between sets -- "My patients always say they'll come hear me but they never do!" She recognized my spouse, didn’t know why until she asked whether she saw the same dentist that I did, and she does, at which point Jo grabbed my spouse’s lips and looked inside, “Have I worked on you?” She had.

Bonus -- tonight was Jo’s birthday. Her fans brought cake.

It also turned out I’d played with Nova, the accordian player. She had randomly showed up at a restaurant where Jake London and I were playing a late night. She had just come from a gig and opened up her accordian and started playing with us. We loved it. She’s a darn good player.

Not doing anything on a first Thursday of a month, if you’re in Seattle and like Western Swing, Jo Miller’s at the Little Red Hen. No cover.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder, on! Blixem;
“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

-- from “ACCOUNT OF A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS” as it originally appeared in the Troy Sentinel, December 23, 1823

You will have noticed that reindeer’s names don’t match the well-known version, the punctuation is eccentric, and the title is different. I love the exclamation points, which emphasize the interjections as opposed to the names.

The descendants of Henry Livingston have been trying for generations to persuade the world that their ancestor wrote the famous “Account.” A few years ago they persuaded Don Foster, whose book Author Unknown persuaded me.

80 years ago they almost persuaded Burton Stevenson, whose 1923 book Famous Single Poems and the controversies that raged around them tells the story as to how the author of verses like these of Livingston’s:

Such Gadding -- such ambling -- such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy -- to sweet Willy's rout,
New Parties at coffee -- then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major will dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea, and destroy bread and butter.

. . . was more likely to have written the “Account” than the author of verses like these of “Account” authorship claimant Clement Clarke Moore’s:

To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure.
For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice,
Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:
Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread.

. . . but Stevenson could not believe without evidence that Moore would have lied. Foster found evidence that Moore was capable of lying; the story is well and amply told in the links above.

And to all a good night!

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Helen Radice recently quoted T. S. Eliot, and that sent me to the bookshelf. I pulled down my copy of “Collected Poems 1909 - 1935” (when he’d written only the first of his “Four Quartets”). The book had belonged to a beloved aunt of my mom’s, and when she died I was the only member of the family who wanted it. Written in ink on the first page are the words,

"T.S. Eliot deceased
Age 76"

Forty years ago today.

I’m not sure that it’s my great-aunt’s handwriting; I remember her script being much messier.

The book had belonged to someone else before Aunt Kat, a woman who wrote her name and address on a different page. In this second woman’s handwriting is a poem and some explanatory notes on a loose sheet of paper folded between two pages.

“Paradise Rehabilitated

Experiment has lost its savor,
Pentameter is back in favor,
So though your taste be Joyce or Hilton,
No longer blush for reading Milton,
The blinded bard who sang of Tophet
The Time[s] says, may be read with profit,
While Time agrees that he’s OK,
For followers of Miss Millay.

His homily once more we’ll preach
In lands of Anglo-Saxon speech.
He may achieve -- oh, strange fruition!
A shiny pocket-sized edition.
In railway station we’ll obtain
The tome to read it on the train,
Or find his works in five and dime stores
Who justified, God’s ways to rhymesters.

James Gidney
Sat. Review of Lit. July, 1947

Ref: Time Magazine
May, 1947.
Eliot again sanctions Milton.”

Eliot’s influence on literary sensibilities in second quarter of the 20th century is difficult to imagine now, but when he said in the ‘20s that Milton was out, Milton was out for lots of people; and so when he said in the ‘40s that Milton was back in, it was news.

I post Mr. Gidney’s poem as an interesting example of the vanished popular culture phenomenon of light rhymed periodical verse, and in honor of the anniversary of Mr. Eliot’s death. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”


My friend the playwright and Chicago theater critic Kerry Reid weighs in on the theater-film question. We pick her up mid-(e)-conversation:

“Yeah. I mean, people have been declaring theater a dead form for a long time, but somehow a lot of us still like it. I think about beautiful moments like Mary Zimmerman's "Journey to the West," where the action on stage stopped for several moments when the Buddhist monk asked that we all silently reflect on those lost along the journey. That would never happen in film, and if it did, I doubt it would have the kind of communal impact it did when I saw the show. And of course, how do we account for improv and other forms of theater that are dependent on some extent or another to the audience as literal participants? Do they not count as "theater”? If we're talking the living-room-drama-in-a-box, he may have an argument about the superiority of film -- but I saw a blistering and heartbreaking production of "I Never Sang For My Father" at Steppenwolf last summer with John Mahoney and Kevin Anderson that was transcendent in ways that a film could never be -- and this is a script that, prior to that production, I would have snottily dismissed as a tired relic of mid-century American psychological realism, which films are now supposed to do so much better than theater.”

Thank you, Kerry, for beautiful examples of un-filmic strengths of the theater.

A couple thoughts. In my original post, I questioned the validity of drawing-room drama on the stage. Then I thought of two exceptions, one specific and one general. The specific, like Kerry’s involved John Mahoney in a Steppenwolf production; it was “Born Yesterday” in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Mohoney was great, but the moment that blew me away was courtesy of Robert Breuler as the scrap metal king’s attorney, the line late in the show when he says that he thought the scrap metal king’s nemesis was “kind of cute.” In the terrific movie, the line is 1950 tough guy; Breuler heartbreakingly revealed his rather minor character to be a deeply unhappy, alcoholic, closeted gay man.

In general, drawing room drama is fine on the stage as long as the theater isn’t much bigger than a drawing room. Steppenwolf’s at that time wasn’t. Most “community” theaters are intimate. I do have a problem with our large “regional” theaters putting on drawing room dramas. Even up close, it doesn’t work, because the actors have to play to the back rows. Doesn’t fit. I’d rather see mediocre amateur actors in a small theater than wonderful actors in a large theater if it’s a chamber drama, just as I’d rather hear amateur musicians in a small auditorium rather than top famous musicians in a very large one if they’re playing chamber music.

My final point, underlined, to our friend ACD is that a play or a movie can’t be reduced to a “text.” In his self-professed focus on aesthetics, he leaves out essential aesthetic facts of theater and film -- the visual and aural. Marcus Maroney and I have posted on visual strengths of theater not available to film. Aural strengths specific to the theater are suggested in a post of George Hunka’s, wherein he quotes a post by Alex Ross on the phenomenology of recording and how it differs from live music.

Back in April, I posted on how sound recording creates a fictional acoustical space which is then projected into another space when the listener plays it back. And this may pertain as to why farce tends to work better on stage rather than in film.

Examples I’m thinking of both have to do with pieces originally written for the stage that were then adapted for film, and which I later saw onstage at a terrific rural summer stock theater not far from my family’s ancestral summer cottage in southwest Michigan, the Barn Theatre in the tiny town of Augusta. The best example is Michael Frayn’s hilarious farce Noises Off. It’s a door-slamming-style backstage farce that depends on quick and adept timing. The first act is the dress rehearsal of a play. The second act takes place backstage during a run, when various cast and crew members find out they’ve been cheating on each other and attempt to silently injure each other -- silently, because they’re backstage and don’t want to interrupt the play frontstage. The third act is later in the run of the play, when everything is falling apart. The first time I read it, I laughed so hard I fell out of my futon.

When I saw it at the Barn 5 or 6 years ago or so, it was so funny that my elderly, almost-blind friends who were at the same performance were disappointed that the crowd laughed so much in the second act that they couldn’t hear any of the dialogue. There is almost no dialogue in the second act, but my friends couldn’t see the action; laughter would have covered any dialogue if there had been any. Then I saw the film, and it’s just not that funny (though some people liked it).

Why did I not find the film funny? Well, one of the things that’s funny in a door-slamming farce is the slamming of doors. The slamming of a door is a complex sound, and film is extremely hard-pressed to do it justice. Sound recording creates the reproduction of an acoustical space and projects it into another. The “presence” is off, no matter how skilled the practitioner. The second thing about door-slamming farce -- and this is back to the visual strength of theater -- is that there’s always more than one door to slam, and they’re arrayed across the stage. When a door on stage left slams just before a door on stage right, the whipping of the audience’s attention from one side to the other contributes to the hilarity. This effect is un-reproducable onscreen.

One last thing. Just because ACD acknowledges that I’m answering his question on his own terms doesn’t mean I think his terms are valid. Speaking as a musican and a former actor, everybody who’s talked about the sensual and aesthetic richness of the live presentation, and the give-and-take between audience and performer, has been right on. However, I thank ACD for his question -- what are strengths available to theater that film can’t match? -- and I pity him for turning himself away from the answers.

Monday, January 03, 2005


A few days before Christmas I mentioned Frank Capra's Meet John Doe and the Baby Jesus Christmas episode of Dragnet, among other Christmas movies and TV shows. On Christmas Eve I saw the Dragnet episode, broadcast by channel 4 without commercial interruption, pre-empting the local news. I'd gotten a few details wrong in my post -- the priest has a Spanish name, not Anglo, though he speaks un-accented English; and the boy doesn't smile until the very end -- in fact, he's afraid he might go to hell because he's borrowed the Baby Jesus without permission. The priest tells him, in uncaptioned Spanish (my beloved spouse translated, as I don't know Spanish), "No, Jesus loves you very much." The boy had prayed to the Baby Jesus for a red wagon and promised Him the first ride in it if he got one, and he got one.

"Meet John Doe" isn't as powerful as "Wonderful Life" or other Capra movies from the era ("Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"); it's also darker than the rest. What stood out was the wonderful Edward Arnold (who was younger in the movie than in this photo) as faux-populist quasi-fascist tycoon D. B. Cooper. Pre-saging the careers of countless radio and TV shouting heads, he lied shamelessly, falsely pretended to be for the common man ("the John Does of the world"), and when publicly confronted with reality he relentlessly shouted it down. Capra had the type nailed, and the type is faring much better in today's America than it did in his movie.

In other, cheerier, 10th-day-of-Christmas news, I'm happy to tell you that composer and blogger Marcus Maroney has a wonderful post on classical Christmas music.


I'm disappointed but not surprised that ACD of sounds & fury finds my aesthetic justification of theater unpersuasive.

Here's another attempt.

The stage provides visual counterpoint.  All of the visual lines are in balance.  The screen emphasizes solo passages more intimately than the stage can, but for many playwrights that's not desirable, that's not an improvement.

Saying that a film of Samuel Beckett’s great play “Waiting for Godot” could improve upon a staging of it, as ACD does, would be like saying, "I like the Goldberg Variations, but Bach should have brought greater emphasis to some of the lines.  I'm going to orchestrate it and double the bass line with a trombone choir sometimes and the treble line with a trumpet ensemble sometimes."

Maybe it would work, maybe it would be terrific, but it would be fundamentally different than what Bach had in mind.

Same with Godot.

Beckett didn't make a mistake in choosing the stage for this work when film was an available alternative.

UPDATE: More discussion here.


people I knew in person long before Blogville got built

Michael Barrish writes the occasional, and occasionally fictional, blog Oblivio as well as terrific short stories which you can find on his site, as well as a blog for his web design business. I met Michael in an off-campus group house in collegetown, late one Sunday evening in August of ‘83 after having been away for the week-end. I walked in to find two guys sitting in my living room listening to “You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With,” an album that split sides between Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, and John Giorno. I said, “Hi, my name’s John, I live here.” Michael said, “I’m Michael, and I live here too.” It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Freshman year in college I played in a synth-pop-noise band called “Bob.” I only played two gigs, and one was all improvised to accompany an evening of ‘30s surrealist films. The other gig was in the dorm basement cafe, a regular set with songs ranging from synth-pop to noise-improv. Stefan Keydel sang strong lead on the pop numbers and played good bass, and he was a real nice guy. Presumably he still is -- we haven’t seen each other in probably 20 years. I recently found out he has a blog, called Plunjerbunni, on politics & culture & daily life.

John Logie, another college pal, is a professor of rhetoric who writes about intellectual property law and morality at blogologie.

My old friend Tim Harris named Apesma’s Lament after something Captain Beefheart mutters at the end of some song. Tim and I met years ago through homeless advocacy. He lives in Seattle and I don’t see him enough; his blog rocks.

Wes Browning is one of the funniest writers I know. Except when he’s serious which is sometimes. I know him through homeless advocacy too. He recognizes my face and maybe my name but maybe not both together. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Here is his Run Off.

I feel like I know composer Miguel Frasconi because I stayed in his loft years ago when he was living with a good friend of mine, but he might not remember me, even though he let me embarrass myself at his piano. In addition to being a terrific musician, Miguel is a really nice guy. I was delighted when he started blogging, and here it is, his well-weathered music.

musicians and music enthusiasts

Carl Wilson is a rock-and-other music critic and curator in Toronto whose blog is Zoilus. When I started blogging, a musician friend said, “You gotta link to Carl Wilson, he’s a really smart guy.” Acquaintance in Blogville facilitated a subsequent meeting in the flesh; Carl in person is even more personable than his writing, and as engaging too.

Kyle Gann is a composer and critic of contemporary (mostly-) notated concert music, which Kyle calls post-classical music. I’d been fan of his criticism for many years and was psyched to find out he had a blog, which he calls PostClassic.

I’d admired Alex Ross’s classical music criticism in the New Yorker for quite a while before he started his blog, “The Rest Is Noise.”

Author and critic Devin McKinney gives us elegant, in depth, thoughtful, witty rock writing at Pop With a Shotgun.

The grrrlish Fangirl’s record collection can beat up your record collection (or mine). In depth & thoughtful & committed, and pseudonymous -- her chosen namesake Emmy Hennings helped found the Dada movement; lacking the canonically facilitating penis, she didn’t get her share of credit.

If Ali Marcus writes pseudonymously, she’s does so as discreetly as her writing is thoughtful. She’s also an idealist and a good musician, as well as, in person, a friendly person. (Not that she isn’t in her writing too!)

My doppelganger Gary Oxford keeps at it Corndoggedly. He's a songwriter-guitarist-singer my age; he's a married father; he makes me laugh. One of my goals in life is to meet him in person.

M runs her dog and pony show on music and the arts with wit and smarts.

There’s always thoughtful, well-informed stuff at ionarts: Music, Art, Literature -- the good stuff. Gimme some of that good stuff!

Franklin Bruno says he’s nervous unto thirst, but it’s not that I could tell; when he has things to say, I want to hear them. Musician, philosophy professor, nice guy.

Helen Radice is a professional harpist in London who brings the player's perspective to music blogging and who knows her way around a poem; her blog is twang twang twang.

Devin Hurd, composer, offers a Scale of the Day and other musical observations at HurdAudio.

Simon Reynolds is a rock critic and rave expert who gives away his blissblog.

Scott Spiegelberg is a musicology professor who shares some of his Musical Perceptions (and other thoughts) at his blog of that name.

Jessica Duchen is a classical music critic and pianist in London, who, among many other virtues, once said nice things about my hometown, Kalamazoo.

Michael Berube is a cultural studies prof and occasional drummer who blogs with wild wit and broad erudition on politics and culture.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is where this fine jazz composer and big-band leader shares his sharp observations.

Pop music critic Michaelangelo Matos assimilates a ton of music and puts it together pop-critically in interesting ways.

Pop music critic Douglas Wolk sponsors the November album project, for which I will be forever in his debt. At various nationwide alt-weeklies he’s a go-to guy for stories on technology & music biz.

Tim Riley wrote a good book on the Beatles; he has sharp things to say at blog riley: rock culture approximately.

Sasha Frere-Jones is the pop music critic of the New Yorker. He's also a musician and a poet of the oblique internet allusion who sometimes writes about his kids.

Destination: OUT posts MP3s of music by people such as Art Ensemble of Chicago -- 'nuff said.

Doug Ramsey’s Rifftides covers jazz. I dig his breadth of knowledge, enthusiasm, and graceful writing.

Marcus Maroney composes music and shares his observations on music and culture at Sounds Like New.

ACD is full of sounds & fury about classical music and other matters. As a self-described classical elitist, he is naturally full of baloney a lot of the time, but he knows a lot and he’s usually interesting to read even when his baloney-meter is spiking; and while I don’t want to get too buddy-movie about it, after a few rhetorical knock-down-drag-outs I’ve virtually come to like the guy.

Terry Teachout is a professional theater, music, and dance critic who blogs About Last Night. I disagree with him a lot, but he has miles & miles of heart.

persons of letters

Ange Mlinko is my favorite poetry polemicist going right now. Lively poet too.

Since this is a mostly-music blog that got its name from poet Marianne Moore, it only seems right to link to a poetry blog that got its name from a Thelonious Monk tune. Jonathan Mayhew, poet, blogs Bemsha Swing.

Ron Silliman is a veteran poet. Let's just say he's been around the poetry block more than once.

Jane Dark blogs his sugarhigh! and writes erudite and incisive criticism on music, poetry, politics & culture under that name; he also writes poetry and more criticism on ditto under the name Joshua Clover.

George Hunka is a New York playwright who refers to his observations as “Superfluities.”

Peli Grietzer’s vision is keen and he doesn’t miss much from the Second Balcony.

I often don’t understand what the pseudonymous Duck is getting at with his philosophy blogging at DuckRabbit, but I enjoy reading him nonetheless.

(Last updated November 6, '07.)

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