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

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

song alchemy

Great to have the beloved spouse and son back. They had a great time but they were ready to get home. I loved having my own schedule, but I missed them.

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Something I did while they were gone: mixed my band's album. The engineer & I did rough mixes in October, then he moved, and the mixing we did on Saturday was the first thing he had done since rebuilding his studio in his new basement. I really want it to be done, but I haven't quite committed myself to these mixes, so we'll see if the Never Ending Tinker will go another round or finally actually end. Mixing was a blast.

I want to tell you all about it but then again I don't. So I'll just say that I'm in love with the alchemy of songwriting, the merging of words and music, and I'm in love with music itself.

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The engineer's housemate is an aesthete. Saturday afternoon he was dressed in tweed jacket, V-neck sweater, and shirt and tie to smoke cigarettes and read Borges' Fictions in the backyard. We took a dinner break & he came along for pizza; I've known him all these months but didn't know what he did: he's a ballroom dance instructor.

At dinner the dance instructor confirmed something I had either guessed, or had read & forgotten & then thought up again as-if-on-my-own (which has happened to me): "couples dancing" didn't exist in the west until the waltz. When the waltz came along, it was dirty dancing.

After dinner the dance instructor joined us in the mixing room. He sat silently and read, just wanting to be around people. He never said one word about the music. But it was nice to have him there just the same.

* * *

Speaking of the alchemy of songwriting: That Irving Berlin lyric I quoted in the previous post: The music gives the words their wallop.

The words are expert, but on the page they could come off breezy. I love how there's only one declarative sentence in the whole thing: "I'll tell you no lie." He keeps his word too; the entire rest of the song consists of questions. There's a wit at work there that could have undermined the grandeur of the rhetorical questions, if the music weren't so convincing: not only is the singer serious (and the singer is genderless; my favorite version is by Peggy Lee), he or she has considered deeply the possibility of losing "you"; the music is aware of that possibility all the way through.

The song runs the same general pattern as another Berlin tune, "Blue Skies." Sung in minor, resolving to the relative major, but never losing the melancholy of main minor strain. "Blue Skies" is a great song too, but the formula works better for "How Deep Is the Ocean," maybe because Berlin defers the resolution to major until the very last phrase, whereas "Blue Skies" has resolved to the major twice already before the end. The words of "How Deep" are deeper too; "Blue Skies" is a jaunty play on the pun on "blues" and the cheeriness of a blue sky -- the words tell a story of relief at having found blues skies after unnumbered blue days. "How Deep" is awestruck -- awed and afraid -- at the depth of the singer's devotion. And to say it all in questions is so brilliant. Inspired.

I didn't realize until thinking about it today that "How Deep" also has a great suggestive sex image: "roses are sprinkled with dew." Fertile!

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If you have favorite versions of Irving Berlin tunes, The Anachronist wants you to tell him about it. He has written a book about Berlin's "White Christmas," so this is no mere passing fancy. He's on the hunt!

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Two friends -- one in Michigan whom I've known since I was an infant and one in California whom I've known since freshman year in college -- emailed me The Anachronist’s manifesto, which he recently published at the New York Times.

It's well worth a read. After making the case for the historical importance of pre-'20s pop in general and minstrelsy in particular, including blackface minstrelsy, Jody goes on to argue not only its importance, but also its quality. He asks, "Are we ready to admit that unequivocally racist songs, delivered by white singers in the thickest possible dialect, might not only be historically significant music, but great music?"

It's important to ask the question, though I find it mildly vexing. Songs are made of music and words; words, obviously, can be racist. Ethnic parody music could be racist in intent or effect (think a Warner's cartoon of American Indian war music), but most music cannot be definitively apprehended as denotatively political. One might think that blackface minstrel music is racist ethnic parody music, but Jody and other writers like David Wondrich (in his great book "Stomp and Swerve") have made a convincing case that minstrel music wasn't merely racist parody music: it was an amalgam of white American and black American influences and became something unlike anything in Europe or Africa. In short, the music of minstrelsy isn't racist, though the words often are, and the presentation definitely was.

I am mildly vexed by the question of whether great music can be married in song to awful words because I thought the Rolling Stones and Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan had settled it long ago: all those misogynist songs with such terrific music. Mick loves having her under his thumb, Jimi feels justified in having giving her the gun because he caught her messing 'round with another man, Neil for no particular reason shot her, Bob merely revels in cruelly dismissing her after he's bored with the affair and she's in love. In a masculinist terrorist culture where a woman is much more likely to be raped or murdered from walking home alone late at night (in my own life, one friend of mine was raped, and a friend of a friend of mine murdered, in these circumstances), having a bunch of rock stars represent masculine hate as having no negative consequence for the hater -- it's a bad scene. And it still hasn't lost its place as a dominant cultural form, though now it has to share the stage with hip hop, another pop form noted for its inclusion of violently misogynist lyrics.

Well, it's not so simple, is it. I'm glad our culture doesn't blandly accept blatantly racist imagery. I wish the same were true of blatantly misogynist imagery. And I'm not entirely convinced that drag shows aren't the equivalent of big-tit minstrelsy.

Enough ranting. Not all the old songs are racist, and Jody and UCSB and others have been doing us a great service, making available forgotten, odd, and often wonderful music.
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