The wonderful Irving Fields has died at the age of 101. Fields was a brilliant piano player and probably the last living man on the Catskill circuit of the postwar years who in the 1950s combined Jewish music traditions with Latin rhythms. His most famous album is 1959’s Bagels and Bongos, the height of this combination. It’s simply a wonderful album that is a tremendous amount of fun to listen to. Fields, having great success on that album, recorded a bunch of other albums combining European lounge and Latin traditions. I also Champagne and Bongos, which builds on French cafe music. It’s good, but not as good as Bagels. In his late career, he was picked up in the John Zorn circle, which allowed him to record some albums of Zorn’s Tzadik label. His album Oy Vey! Ole! with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is absolutely fantastic. His solo album on Tzadik, My Yiddishe Mama, is quite good, although in my view it has the limits of most solo piano albums which is a lack of varied sound. Fields played weekly in an Italian restaurant in New York until just a few months ago. I am disappointed with myself for not finding a reason to go see him play. Here’s a few available clips from his long career. RIP.
Time for another Saturday evening music conversation. A few notes:
Rob Wasserman has died. Best known for his work with Bob Weir, Wasserman was a truly great bassist.
Pop Matters is ranking the top 100 alternative singles of the 1990s. These sorts of lists are good for nothing but an argument, which is of course the point.
One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!
As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?
I’ve seen one live show since the last time I did one of these, which was Wussy at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. That’s my 3rd Wussy show. As always, it was great. They are a fantastic live band. Unfortunately however, they do not mix up the setlist. That’s always a little disappointing, to know exactly what songs you are going to hear when you walk into the show, and often in what order. My understanding is that this is basically because Chuck Cleaver thinks of a set of songs as something that improves over time they more they are played so when they hit the road, they will play the same ones repeatedly. They’ve basically come to the point where there are two songs on Strawberry that will ever be played again, one off of Left for Dead, even only three or maybe four off Attica. Given all the good material they have, I wish they’d play more of it.
Now some reviews of recent albums:
Lake Street Dive, Show Pony
Listening to Lake Street Dive caused me to think a lot more than the music intends one to think. This is a band of New England Conservatory of Music graduates making retro soul of the Aretha Franklin and Supremes style. The musicians are good and Rachael Price has an excellent voice that she uses effectively. The lyrics are reasonably witty. That said, this music lacks any sort of edge or grit at all. When I first listened to this, I thought I might be missing something in a band a lot of people think is pretty great. But then I realized that everything they do, other bands do better. The problem isn’t that they are retro–Charles Bradley, among others, does an overtly retro style quite well. It’s certainly not that this is a white band playing soul–Alice Russell or Amy Winehouse make (or, sadly, made) some pretty great music. And a band doesn’t really have to push the envelope musically or conceptually, but boy does Janelle Monae and Shamir make more interesting music. Finally, I just came to the conclusion that I don’t think Lake Street Dive is a very interesting band. They are capable and this is perfectly pleasant and some of you may find it quite enjoyable. It would work fairly well at a cocktail party or a little dance party in your house. Still, they are playing in Providence in October and maybe I will go to see if I am missing anything.
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steel Drivers and a long-time Nashville songwriting hand, Stapleton’s solo release took the country music world by storm last year. He is a very talented singer, a good songwriter, and a charismatic performer. He plays on the outlaw country tradition without trying too hard. He does a great version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that David Allan Coe and George Jones had hits with in the 80s. My only hesitation about this album is that it is too long. Few albums need to be 65 minutes and pretty much no country albums need to be that long. That’s not some arbitrary standard. It’s really hard to write 14 good songs without filler and in a genre where the arrangements don’t really value experimentation, 65 minutes means some bloat. The back half of the album drags at times and occasionally Stapleton over-relies on vocal pyrotechnics where a more subtle approach might be better. This is good stuff and I look forward to his next project, but Traveller is not quite as great as has been advertised.
Mount Moriah, How to Dance
When I first heard this, I would never have thought it was released by Merge, except that like almost everything else that label puts out, it’s excellent. This is a country band made up of indie rock singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller of the metal band Horseback. Does such genre hopping mean this isn’t an “authentic” band? Only if one thinks authenticity is something real or something to strive for. How to Dance is just a very solid country album with good tunes, good vocals, and good lyrics. Mount Moriah is less ambitious than Chris Stapleton but I can’t help but believing they have the better album.
Parquet Courts, Human Performance
In one of these threads awhile ago, someone suggested I listen to Parquet Courts. I realized that a friend had given me one of their albums so I did. I loved it. So I bought their new album, Human Performance. I love this too. Parquet Courts is just a great rock band. These are really interesting songs lyrically and like all their albums, there’s a great deal of variance in their arrangements, including the length of songs. It’s arresting music from a very productive band.
And now a couple of older albums I had long forgotten about.
John Cale, 1919
I’ve always felt I should like John Cale’s post-Velvet Underground material more than I do. I like his experimental side and of course I love VU. But although I really love a few of his songs (“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” especially) I still can’t get into his albums, even though I just tried again with 1919. Basically, I don’t think he’s a consistent songwriter and the arrangements are surprisingly boring. It’s a smart enough album, but I guess I will just never be a Cale fan.
Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey
For years, I basically hated reggae. I confess that this was without really sitting down and listening to it hard. When you go to college in Eugene, at least in the 1990s, reggae gets associated with white dreadlocked hippies getting stoned and listening to boring music. And that’s basically what they were doing. Then, doing a bit of traveling over the years, but especially during my year in Asia after college, you can’t enter a restaurant or bar catering to tourists in many nations without hearing “No Woman No Cry.” All of this is a bit unfair to the music itself. Over the last few years, people have snuck in a reggae album or two in stuff they have given me. I slowly started to realize there was a bit more here than I had recognized. So I put on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, really listening to this for the first time. And I have to say that it is pretty great. Yeah, reggae is still repetitive, while also being slow and mellow, making the repetition harder to listen to than, say, North Africa’s trance-like music traditions. But if you turn it up loud enough you can really hear the great horn arrangements. The politics on the album are of course fantastic without being trite. Reggae is a form of modernized folk music, at least in its early days before it became the music of stoned white dreadlocked hippies, and I don’t know how many albums do it better than Marcus Garvey. I mean that in a literal way–maybe there are a lot that do and I don’t know them. But I actually enjoyed this a lot.
As always, this is an open thread on all things music.
I’ve been so busy that I haven’t done one of these in several weeks. I don’t even really have any good stories to link to, but I have slowly listened to a new or long-forgotten album every now and then over the last few weeks and wrote them up here.
First though, another day, another musician. The truly great Bernie Worrell, RIP.
It’s not that 2016 is some sort of musician apocalypse year. It’s that you are getting old, I am getting old, and the musicians who did not take care of their bodies for decades are really getting old. Imagine what 2020 is going to look like.
Ludovico Einaudi, Taranta Project
This is fairly interesting music. Einaudi fuses Sicilian, North African, and Turkish folk music with electronic and contemporary compositional music into a swirling set of compositions. The sounds work pretty well. My one caveat is that this sometimes sounds a bit too New Agey-type world music to me, a genre I have long found repulsive. Not that I need “authenticity,” whatever that is, but borrowing music of the world to provide background music for white people to feel authentic rubs me the wrong way. Mostly this avoids this and stays in the world of worthy music, but sometimes I felt on the border.
Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
This is a very solid, not great, rock album. Deerhunter is one of those bands that I am happy when it comes on the shuffle, but don’t listen to the albums much. I own both Halcyon Digest and Microcastle, both solid enough. Clearly playing for a classic rock sound, Deerhunter mostly succeeds here. I probably won’t buy it, but you might well want to do so.
Sherwater, Jet Plane and Oxbow
This is a decent rock album, although the singer sounds a bit too much like whiny 80s British pop to me. I’ve always hated that Cure-esque sound. Fans of that scene may disagree. 80s nostalgia has never worked for me. Lyrics are fine, music is fine. Overall, a perfectly acceptable album that I won’t ever listen to again. But if someone puts it on while I’m in the car with them, that’s totally fine.
Kasey Musgraves, Pageant Material
The critics love Musgraves. And she is a solid performer. But this is not an exceptional or even particularly great album. A lot of that critic love is that she sings about smoking marijuana, questioning religion, and being cool with gay people, topics that are risque in the right-wing world of Nashville. And that’s all great. But it does not mean that she has a great set of songs on Pageant Material. She wrote a perfectly acceptable set of songs for it.
Gardens & Villa, Music for Dogs
Mostly I just found this to be irritating synth-pop. Not much for me to grab on to here.
The Pretenders, Packed.
I forgot how much this album sucked. Mitchell Froom was a really terrible producer. I guess no Pretenders album can be that bad. But this is pretty lame.
I have seen one live show since I wrote the last of these posts. That was the percussionist Adam Rudolph at The Stone in New York, with Hassan Hakmoun on sintir, Hamid Drake on drums, Graham Haynes on cornet, and an unlisted North African musician on also sintir and hand percussion. This was pretty amazing. Those mesmerizing North African vocals and music with the two drummers can really take you away. And then Haynes popping in with cornet, which really served as another voice, was just great. I don’t have a good YouTube clip of anything quite like this, but here’s some of Rudolph’s music with Yusef Lateef.
As always, this should serve as an open thread on all things musical.
The great Ralph Stanley died last night at the age of 89. Stanley was the last major living figure of the early bluegrass era. He began recording with his brother Carter in 1947. They never had major financial success–really only Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs did. They were a great band, pretty squarely within the emerging bluegrass tradition. But when Carter died in 1966, Ralph took his music back in time a bit. He always thought of himself as an old-time singer and banjo player, not a bluegrass musician. And that’s accurate. Bluegrass quickly developed into something pretty slick, with fancy instrumentals and a certain sense of virtuosity. Monroe developed the music by taking old-time and combining it with jazz, pop, and country music. While Stanley never completely rejected that, he emphasized the old-time Appalachian music much more. This led to some really outstanding music in the years after Carter’s death. I want to point out a few starting points for Dr. Ralph’s (he received an honorary Ph.D. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee) discography. His 1969 album, Hills of Home, is an outstanding entrypoint. While I don’t care about the subject matter, the 1972 gospel album, Cry from the Cross, is probably the best bluegrass gospel album ever recorded. During these years, he mentored a number of young Appalachian singers, including Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs. The last two of course became stars after switching to country music while Centers was pointlessly murdered. My collection of Stanley is this 2-CD set from these years, including live performances from all three. Really amazing stuff.
I saw Ralph Stanley perform twice. The first was in about 1998 at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. By this point, he was signing with his son, Ralph II. His son doesn’t have a good bluegrass lead voice. Good enough for country music, but not good enough for that style. So it wasn’t like seeing him in the 1970s, but was a ton of fun nonetheless, especially in front of a crowd that cared deeply about that style of music. I saw him again in about 2002 in Albuquerque. By this time, his late-career revival thanks to O Brother Where Art Thou had kicked in. He played to a packed house, played “Man of Constant Sorrow” like 3 times, and during the set break, shook every hand and sold every piece of merchandise he could. An old man now, he was going to cash in while he could. And who could blame him, given his long struggle to be financially successful, even if this meant the set break was a full hour.
Rest in Peace, Ralph. You were a true giant of American music. A few sample cuts:
And since this is a political blog, let’s not forget his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008.
It’s Wednesday night and it seems like a good time to point out a cranky old man argument that I don’t agree with but that should create an amusing thread. In other words, kids these days record their music too damn loud!
The great British folk-rock violinist has died. Like Guy Clark, Dave Swarbrick did not exactly lead a life that one would call healthy. He was actually reported dead in the 90s, but was only in the hospital. I will always remember him primarily for his fiddling on “A Sailor’s Life” when he was with Fairport Convention.
The great Guy Clark has died. One of the finest country-folk singers ever and a foundational figure in the alt-country genre, Clark had been sick for some time. He was not only good friends with Townes Van Zandt, but his partner in crazy living, as you can read about in this great late-life profile. Clark was a lot more emotionally stable than Van Zandt so he lived a lot longer, but he did not live a life that was going to reach 90 (although Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still lives so sometimes you can do that). Clark had the songwriting skills to become wealthy if he played the Nashville game. On the other hand, he was pure Texas. He split the difference, moving to Nashville in the early 70s (sort of the opposite of Willie Nelson here) to keep a hand in the business but remained fiercely independent his entire career. This plus his generous nature made him a mentor to a whole generation of young Texas musicians such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.
Guy Clark’s albums themselves are something of a mixed bag. His first album, Old No. 1, contains a number of classics that were often covered by others. This includes the wonderful “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Texas, 1947.”
A lot of people love his second album, Texas Cookin’. I’m a bit more mixed on it, although it does have “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”
The South Coast of Texas is one of the most underrated albums in all of music. This is basically a perfect country album, with each song revolving around some Texas story, from the Kentuckians getting ready to move to Texas in the 19th century in “New Cut Road” to the shrimpers and their ladies in “The South Coast of Texas” to the young man falling in love with an older waitress in the great closing track “Lone Star Motel.” I love this album tremendously.
He had a series of decent albums in the 80s and 90s, culminating in the pretty excellent 1999 album Cold Dog Soup. But probably the place I would start is with his live greatest hits plus some new ones album Keepers, from 1997. Good band, fun performances.
In the end, anyone who can write a song like “The Randall Knife” is worth remembering.
I only saw Guy Clark play once. It was in Santa Fe, maybe around 2004, a show with just him and his long-time guitarist Verlon Thompson. It showed the delicate nature of live performing. Mostly, it was great. But some drunk guy started shouting during the set and Clark walked off until someone kicked him out. Then, right in the middle of the powerful song “Let Him Roll” about a bum who dies still loving the prostitute he knew decades ago, someone’s damn cell phone rang. Totally ruined the moment. Such things happen in a live setting. In recent years, by most accounts, his shows had taken a turn for the worse with his physical health.
Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.
A very busy week so I didn’t read a lot of good music pieces. However, last Friday, I saw Waxahatchee at the Columbus Theater in Providence. It was just Katie Crutchfield and the bass player so it’s a bit less of a band effect as this video, but those are some great songs and I was very happy to be there.
Still managed to squeeze in some new albums this week. Reviews:
Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete
The way I feel about electronic music is I think something like a lot of people feel about jazz. I recognize the talent and the noise that moves in interesting ways but I just can’t really get into it. Probably the closest band to something I like that I know of is Oneohtrix Point Never, which is the performance name of Daniel Lopatin. He’s an interesting guy, even writing essays on Kenny G that are well worth reading. Lopatin’s compositions densely swirl around in some genuinely interesting ways. I’d almost listen to this a bunch of times. But I probably won’t. It’s my fault, I admit it.
Now this is interesting. Algiers is an indie rock/punk band with an African-American singer who has a powerful voice that channel slave chants and gospel into some pretty heavy music and heavy lyrics that force the listener to confront the racist past of America. It’s noisy and about slavery. What’s not to like? This is definitely deserving of additional listens.
Bill Fay, Who is the Sender?
Bill Fay had a couple of good albums in the 70s and then disappeared. I used to have one of those albums before it was lost in the Great House Robbery of 2014. He was one of those many weird folkies from the 60s and early 70s making some pretty decent music, in his case rather religiously oriented. In 2012, he put out an EP and in 2015, a full album, Who is the Sender? His voice isn’t what it was in the 70s but this is a very solid album of good quality folk music. He’s still singing religious songs, which might annoy if they weren’t really interesting. Bigger production than you’d expect, but it mostly works well.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Price is a Nashville lifer who finally got an album made after a decade trying. Interesting, it’s the first country album put out on Jack White’s label. She has an interesting back story, including a dead baby and the depression and self-medication that led to a DWI and a weekend in jail. She doesn’t shy away from any of this in her songs. The album itself has a great lead about herself and some other quite good songs about various parts of her life. It’s not a great album as a whole, as there are a few average tracks and she doesn’t really veer away from a pretty basic Nashville sound. But I’m glad she’s received a lot of buzz (even played Saturday Night Live!) and the financial success she deserves. A quality talent and I look forward to her next album.
Eszter Balint, Airless Midnight
Louis C.K. fans know Balint as his love interest in the last season of his show or they know her from her role in Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. She’s worked a lot of television and film and made a few albums as well. This is her first in a decade. Working with Marc Ribot among others, Balint surrounds herself with interesting musicians that make a more compelling palette of sounds than the usual singer-songwriter material. As for the songs themselves, they are eminently listenable, but not something that changed my life.
As always, let this serve as your open thread about all things musical.
Haven’t done one of these in a few weeks. Here’s some interesting articles, album reviews, and tidbits.
Country music humor is almost universally terrible as comedy, from “Uncle Josh” routines performed by any number of old-time and country bands through World War II to Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones to Ray Stevens. Some of the music related to it can be alright. Those old enough to remember Hee Haw have a sense of this. Anyway, there’s a new generation of country music comedy.
This is a really interesting essay defending greatest hits albums and reissue discs, something that is rapidly being lost in the digital age. It’s a pretty convincing argument: collections and greatest hits help define eras, salvage lost musical genres, and make vast troves of music accessible to listeners in easily accessible collections.
Some album reviews from things I have recently picked up:
After Prince died, Janelle Monae said she could not be what she is (a gender-bending weirdo) if Prince had paved the way. It’s safe to say the same about Shamir, a gender-fluid, high-falsetto, dance-pop artist from Las Vegas, who previously played country music covers before figuring out the money was better in pop music. He’s a weird little hipster dude who makes some really fun music.
Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins, Phantom Orchard
This 2004 collaboration between two titans of electronic and experimental jazz isn’t that easy to listen to. This is dense music of swooping sounds and effects from people used to composing and performing challenging music. But is largely a fascinating exploration of sound that I have enjoyed.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
That Sturgill Simpson has been able to do precisely what he wants to do on a country album, making no compromises toward slick Nashville sounds, bro country, country radio, etc. while using string sections, the Dap Kings, and other production elements not common in modern country music that he then releases directly to the top of the charts, is kind of amazing. Hopefully it spawns a new wave of interesting country musicians pushing boundaries.
It’s quite an artistic statement. However, I don’t love the album and don’t think it is as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Basically, I don’t think the songs are of the same quality as the last album. Simpson got a lot of buzz because he covered Nirvana’s “In Bloom” but it might be the album’s weakest song. There are real highlights–“Keep It Between the Lines,” “Sea Stories,” and “Call to Arms” in particular. But there’s nothing quite as rousing as “Long White Line” or “Life of Sin” off the last album. It’s a good record, but it’s not a great record.
Chris Lightcap & Bigmouth, Deluxe
I saw this band in New Haven a couple of weeks ago. It was absolutely outstanding, as is this album. Lightcap is the bassist, the wonderful Craig Taborn is on piano and Fender Rhodes, Gerald Cleaver is the drummer, and the saxophonists are Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek. An outstanding band in any circumstance, but with great tunes and that Fender Rhodes, it plays almost as a rock band at times. This is accessible modern jazz for people who might want to explore a bit, but who might be intimidated by, say, the Mori/Parkins album I reviewed above. Outstanding show, outstanding album.
Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories
Although I liked several of the songs on Fulks’ last album, Gone Away Backwards, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that he retreated from the country of his earlier albums (and specifically the rich 60s country sound of his brilliant Georgia Hard) for a folk/bluegrass sound, which is kind of a default for a lot of country songwriters these days when commercial success doesn’t match hopes. He continues with that instrumentation on Upland Stories, but this is a pretty brilliant set of songs. He mostly eschews the silly (or sometimes downright offensive) humor of some of his earlier albums and the exceptions (Aunt Peg’s New Old Man) are pretty effective and funny. Mostly though this is a great set of songs about both classic country themes and hard life in the present. Really rewarding piece of music, although perhaps there are a couple of weaker tunes toward the end.
John Moreland, In The Throes
John Moreland’s latest album, High on Tulsa Heat, is a revelation. What a great songwriter. So I checked out his first album, In The Throes. It’s like a lot of first albums from very good artists, which is that it’s close to great, but not quite there yet. There are some outstanding songs, such as the one embedded below, and some not quite up to what appears on the next album. But this is a real talent and I look forward to his future work.
And, as part of my lifelong quest to explore the history of country music, here’s few older country albums I recently acquired:
Merle Haggard, A Portrait of Merle Haggard
How good was Merle Haggard in 1969? In this year, he released 6 full albums. A Portrait of Merle Haggard included two #1 hits. One was “Working Man’s Blues.” The other was “Hungry Eyes.” He didn’t even bother releasing another popular song from the album as a single. It goes by the name of “Silver Wings.” The country music strategy of flooding the market with albums during these years usually did not work out well, but when someone was working at this level, it could lead to an astounding number of outstanding albums.
Glen Campbell, Country Boy
This 1975 compilation (I think it’s a compilation anyway) is pure cheese. At its best, the big production of 70s country could work great to accentuate excellent songwriting and singing, such as Billy Sherrill’s productions of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. But with weaker material, it just adds to the weakness. Even with his big hits like “Country Boy” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” included, its primary value today is an exercise in nostalgia. Given that Campbell had more talent than the average singer of the era, the production quality of 70s country makes a lot of the period’s music unlistenable.
Jerry Reed, When You’re Hot, You’re Hot
Jerry Reed was a heck of a guitar player. And he certainly had a lot of energy. He could also sing some really dumb songs and some super cheesy songs too. This was his biggest hit. The album is, well, OK. Did he have the emotional range to cover “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”? Not really. Kind of interesting cover of “Thank You Girl.” Not my favorite version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The songs he wrote were of mixed quality. The production of the hit song in the video below is very 70s.
Since I assume that you all, like me, listen to music for 12-14 hours of each and every day, this is your place for various and sundry musical conversations.
Were you thinking, I really need to know what Jacobin has to say about Merle Haggard? Probably not. Unfortunately, Jacobin decided to publish a Merle Haggard obituary of sorts, by Jonah Walters. It is, without exaggeration, the worst essay I have ever seen in that publication and one of the worst essays on music I have ever read. It is essentially an exercise in Aesthetic Stalinism, arguing that Merle Haggard was a terrible person and overrated artist because he was supposedly the voice of American reaction for a half-century. This is not only wrong politically, it’s wrong musically. Let’s break it down.
The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place, a revanchist fantasy where the democratizing momentum of the 1960s never swept from sinful coastline cities into the pure heart of the middle country; where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites; where women existed only to break hearts and be heartbroken (generally in lonesome small-town diners); and where the most working-class people could hope for was martyrdom, not liberation.
This is ridiculous and just wrong. “Where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites.” Huh. Well, what about “Irma Jackson”? What about “Go Home”? Both are songs about interracial relationships broken up by racists. Haggard actually wanted to release “Irma Jackson” instead of “Fighting Side of Me” as the followup to “Okie from Muskogee” but the record company overruled him. Yet such facts never get in Walters’ way. Merle was not singing about black oppression per se, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable standard by which to judge the politics of a musician. Moreover, there are plenty of minor songs that at least express a certain level of solidarity with working people of other races. For instance, “The Immigrant” off Haggard’s relatively minor 1978 album I’m Always on a Mountain When a Fall (“It’s Been a Great Afternoon” was the big hit on this album) is not particularly sophisticated or a great song but it’s a song about undocumented migrants that welcomes them into the country and hopes they will come back when they are inevitably deported. Walters’ argument on Merle Haggard’s catalog is absolutely incorrect.
As for the line about women, welcome to country music. And this is of course the real problem with Walters’ article. He is dismissive of country music as an art form because he doesn’t like the politics and considers the entire genre a revanchist fantasy. More on this later. Songs about heartbreak are the centerpiece of country music songwriting, especially before 1990. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette sang about women in these terms just as much as Merle Haggard or any other supposedly sexist male artist. One feels that Walters is the type of lefty who makes an exception for Johnny Cash, but dismisses the entire genre otherwise as the music of racists and sexists.
For Haggard, working-class allegiance meant political conservatism. He shape-shifted to suit the times, but never wavered in his reactionary posture. He was a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters. There are precious few lyrics in his songbook worth defending.
Now this my friends is what you call a selective timeline. Among other things, I wonder why Walters doesn’t discuss the Iraq War? Actually, he does, later in the article:
But no amount of waffling could challenge the red-blooded conservatism of his some of his fans, including the contemporary country star Toby Keith, whose Iraq War–mongering sing-along “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” was inspired by Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
He blames Merle Haggard for Toby Keith. Interesting. I wonder if there were any county musicians who opposed the Iraq War? Oh yeah, this guy:
A new Merle Haggard song that is critical of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq is being rushed to thousands of radio stations around the United States.
Tom Thacker, vice president of Hag Records, says the song “That’s the News” is generating intense interest around the country from media and fans.
“We’re mailing it out as we speak,” Thacker said. “It’s going to a broad range of stations.”
“It’s another one of Merle Haggard’s social commentaries,” he said. “This time it’s kind of opposed to the tone of ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.”‘
Quite the unreconstructed right-winger there! There are other anti-Iraq War Haggard songs as well.
At the core of Walters’ analysis is that Haggard wasn’t the right kind of political artist. By representing white populism and not engaging in fantasies of global revolution, Haggard somehow sold out the American working class, who clearly didn’t want to hear his messages as he is only one of the most popular artists in the history of recorded music.
The same year, he released “Working Man’s Blues.” This was a year in which workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy, replete with better entitlements and expanded leisure time.
But according to “Working Man’s Blues,” to be a proud member of the working class was to be a dutiful employee, arriving to work on time in the morning, drinking beer in the evening, and denying the need for welfare all the while.
First, saying “workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy” is both true and not true at the same time. Yes, there were uprisings at Lordstown and elsewhere through the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean that a majority of workers believed such things per se, that they felt their popular music had to represent those viewpoints if they did, or that wanting to go home and drink a beer is somehow anti-political or antithetical to their interests. As I have stated elsewhere, one problem the labor left has is that it assumes an empowered worker is a worker who is going to spend their off-hours engaged in meetings for democratic unions or anti-racist meetings. Sometimes it is. It’s also empowering to be able to go home and watch a bad CBS comedy, or have time to watch your kid’s soccer game, if that’s what you want to do. Empowerment is not “do what I think you should do.” Empowerment actually means “you have choices to do what you want to do.”
Walters clearly has not actually read anything on Haggard either, which is too bad since the literature on him is voluminous. He mentions that Haggard played for Pat Nixon’s birthday in 1973 as central to his argument that Haggard was an unreconstructed conservative. What he doesn’t do is discuss how Haggard actually responded to that event. Jefferson Cowie does detail this event, in his great book Stayin’ Alive, which Walters desperately needs to read if he wants to write about the white working-class. Haggard described it as a horrible experience. He remembered, “I felt like I was coming out for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.” That’s the evidence Walters should be using. But instead, the actual fact of Haggard playing at this event is a sign of his unreconstructed politics in this incredibly shallow essay.
Walters then goes on to somehow blame Haggard’s nostalgic songs about the 1980s as prepping for Reagan’s election but has no evidence at all to even begin supporting this point.
The point of course is not that Merle Haggard is a progressive hero. He’s not. Merle Haggard’s core belief was that he liked money. He acted accordingly. He wrote a wide variety of songs, some of which expressed conservative fantasies, others that expressed quite progressive and nuanced politics.
But for all too large swaths of the left, dealing with the actually existing white working class and their cultural forms is far more difficult than fantasizing about the idealized white working class in their minds. See this absurdity of a paragraph:
It’s a tragedy that Haggard adopted a regressive, individualistic politics of misplaced nostalgia. In other circumstances, his life experience might have guided him toward the opposite, toward a progressive politics of collective action.
This is Jacobin magazine, a magazine hoping to spawn a new revolutionary politics. You might call it a tragedy that white people don’t generally respond to cross-racial collective action, but the point if you believe that should not be that Merle Haggard represents everything wrong with America because he didn’t write songs from the precise political perspective you personally espouse. It should be that we need to learn from Haggard’s songs to tap into tenets of white populism where the left might build a broader class-based politics. But so often on the left, talking about the white working class as they actually exist, turns into a snobbish dismissal, whether of actual people or of their cultural forms. That this essay is being published at the same time that the same magazine has published many essays supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is quite telling. As the 2016 elections have shown, we are in a moment of an upsurge of white populism. A lot of it has supported Trump. But not all of it. Sanders has had some success among the white working class. He’s the kind of politician that can provide a real voice for white working-class people. Jacobin supports that, but seems to also lack actual white working-class voices that make these people real. It’s easy for the left to talk about the working-class from a generalized perspective. But Walters’ essay shows how quickly many leftists fall into a knee-jerk belief that the actual living breathing white working class is a political failure and thus evaluates their cultural forms from that perspective. Walters attempts to avoid this in his last paragraph:
We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.
“We understand what Haggard didn’t” is perhaps the most condescending phrase of all time. It screams of “let me tell you, poor whites, what the real and correct politics are.” It says that Haggard’s songs, or at least the few cherry-picked songs to support this essay and not the actual catalog of Merle Haggard, are actually wrong and we now know better. In union organizing training, you are taught to listen carefully to the people you are talking to and build arguments for unions based upon their concerns, not your concerns and your talking points. This is good advice. I have to feel that Jonah Walters would be a terrible organizer if that was his job because he would condescend rather than listen, spout talking points rather than consider the real desires of the people he was organizing.
Jonah Walters’ article is a failure as a piece of musical journalism. It’s a failure at understanding that art and the artist’s biography are not the same thing. It’s a failure as a history of Merle Haggard. It’s a failure as a political argument. It’s a failure at understanding anything about the white working class. It is an absolutely terrible essay and Jacobin should be ashamed to have published it. This feels more appropriate to be published with the recent anti-white working-class articles at The National Review than in a leftist publication.
Prince isn’t the only great musician to die today. Richard Lyons of the legendary cult band Negativland, RIP.
West African kings understood that music is power. They made sure their official audiences were accompanied by song. They traveled with music, too: when the king of Mali returned from a journey, wrote the fourteenth-century scholar Al-’Umari, “a parasol and a standard are held over his head as he rides,” while ahead of him came musicians playing “drums, guitars, and trumpets, which are made out of the horns of the country with a consummate art.” The legendary chronicler Ibn Battuta described similarly how when the king of Mali arrived for an audience, “the singers come out in front of him with gold and silver stringed instruments in their hands and behind them about 300 armed slaves.” A 1655 account of the court of Askia Mohammed-Gâo, the seat of the Songhay empire, described him surrounded by “instrumentalists who played the guitar” along with other instruments, sitting “under the pasha’s tent, behind the dais.”
These writers used various Arabic terms to describe the instruments: Al-Umari used tanbūr or tunbūr, a Persian term for a long-necked instrument, while Ibn Battuta used a term rendered as kanābir in the 1922 French edition, quinburī in the more recent English one. And the “Kano Chronicle,” first published in 1804 on the basis of earlier materials, mentions a stringed instrument called the “Algaita” that was requested by a Kano ruler for his court in 1703. But these writers were using the terms for their own familiar stringed instruments, so we can’t assume that this was the name used by the musicians themselves or draw conclusions about the construction of the instruments beyond a general analogy.
There is a fascinating glimpse in a series of metal plaques from the thirteenth-century Kingdom of Benin. These renderings, the earliest visual depictions of West African instruments, include only one figure holding a stringed instrument: a small harp. A gold sculpture from the Akan people of Ghana, however—dated sometime between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries—shows a musician playing a stringed instrument with a curved neck and a rounded resonator that looks as if made from a calabash.
Miles Davis, beyond Kind of Blue. Is it OK for me to say that I don’t even really love Kind of Blue all that much? I mean, I recognize its greatness, but I don’t actually like listening to it more than once or twice a year. I’d say it’s maybe my 7th or 8th favorite Miles album. Basically, I need more than an album of ballads. This is also why I don’t much listen to Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck in any regular rotation. Call me a Neanderthal, it’s OK.
I was lucky enough to see Wussy play in Boston a few weeks ago. It was typically outstanding. That band also excels at superior between song banter. A portion of the band was on KEXP last month. Check it out.
Some album reviews:
Cracker, Berkeley to Bakersfield
I’ve always mostly enjoyed Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker albums because I do like David Lowery. Of course, one of his strengths has also always been one of his weaknesses, which is that his songs are so ironic and cynical. So you listened to the albums, even if there were too many instrumental numbers, and you enjoyed them, but you could never take the songs all the seriously. But Berkeley to Bakersfield is a pretty-much irony free set of songs that make up what really are two entirely distinct albums. The first is a bunch of leftist political songs that revolve around Berkeley with a rock sound. The second is Lowrey’s ode to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. So it’s a hard country album with the lovelorn and nostalgic lyrics typical of country albums, this time with a particular focus on working-class California. And both work really well. I thoroughly enjoyed both discs. This is a sure buy.
Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Somehow I had never heard this before. And while it might be kind of pointless to review classic albums, why not. It’s fascinating that RCA kept his under wraps for 20 years because it was too raw. It is a little raw and that’s a good thing for me. Sometimes I have found Cooke too smooth and I don’t listen to him a whole lot, but this was a real revelation to me. In the realm of live recordings by R&B artists of the period, I wouldn’t say this is as good as James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or Ray Charles at Newport. But those are true all-time greats. On the other hand, I like it better than Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, which I think really suffers from too much crowd noise. There’s plenty of crowd noise here too, maybe a little more than I like.
Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird is Home
Another lovely collection of songs for Kristian Matsson, the Swedish singer who performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. And while with his voice he sometimes gets called another Dylan imitator, I find it highly expressive. It’s really a very powerful voice, one of the most expressive in recent times. The lyrics are best not followed too closely; these aren’t story songs. There is also a bit more going on here musically than normal, with most of the instruments played by Matsson and he does well enough with them. I don’t know that I like this as much as I loved the brilliant The Wild Hunt, but this is a very solid collection of songs.
Los Hijos de la Montaña, Los Hijos de la Montaña
This is a pretty interesting collaboration between the unrelated Luz Elena Mendoza and Sergio Mendoza. The former is a singer in the Northwest, the latter in a band that is inspired by the mambo music of Mexico in the 50s and 60s. Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin got them together to combine her rich voice with his big sound. It mostly works as an interesting experiment in modern Mexican-American music. I think I would like his band better. The voice is big and rich and loaded but is a bit pastoral and folkie for me. The music is good but sounds like it’s straining to be louder than it is allowed to be in this setting. Certainly a worthy project, maybe not my very favorite thing. At the very least though, I think it is well worth a listen.
Finally, I was recently tagged in one of those Facebook memes that was “12 albums that stuck with you.” I assumed the definition of that was at least 5 years old. I chose the following:
1) Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
2) Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages
3) Waylon Jennings, Dreamin’ My Dreams
4) Wussy, Strawberry
5) Palace, Viva Last Blues
6) Old 97s, Fight Songs
7) Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
8) Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
9) Bob Wills, Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 4
9) Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night
10) Millie Jackson, Caught Up
11) Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
12) Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out
If I went to 24, I guess it might look something like this:
13) Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
14) The Band, The Band
15) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
16) Gram Parsons, Return of the Grievous Angel
17) Bill Frisell, This Land
18) Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
19) Ray Charles, At Newport
20) Terry Allen, Lubbock (On Everything)
21) The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
22) The Who, Who’s Next
23) Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights
24) Velvet Underground, White Light, White Heat
Open thread for all musical thoughts and notes.