Lotte Lenya – Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill

Lotte LenyaLotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill Philips B 07 089 (1955)


Lotte Lenya was, in a word, inimitable.  That voice, so frail yet so unshakable, gave us the definitive interpretations of Kurt Weill‘s music.  Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill was recorded in 1955 as her career saw a revival thanks to a new English-language production of Brecht/Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” by Marc Blitzstein at the Theatre de Lys (co-starring Bea Arthur, Ed Asner and Jerry Stiller).  She recorded in Berlin, returning for the first time in twenty years.  That environment was likely crucial to the record that resulted.  A lot had changed in those years.

First some history.  Germany and Prussia, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, provoked the Great War (World War I) by seeking to enjoy the same economic and political privileges that imperial powers like France and England sought to reserve for themselves.  Germany/Prussia was eventually defeated due primarily to the fact that the United States lent its fiscal and manufacturing support to the side of the Allies — in spite of the Bolshevik Revolution that withdrew Soviet/Russian troops from the ridiculous conflict (not to mention allowed the publication of the secret Allied treaties in Pravda).  That particular war lead to abdication by Wilhelm II in 1918, and later the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  The treaty has lived in infamy, as it memorialized the old grudges held by England/France against their counterparts with oppressive reparations imposed on the Germans/Prussians.  To the chagrin of the Allies, American boorishness reared its head as the United States refused to treat Allied support as wartime grants not to be repaid (as was long tradition among warring nations) but instead as loans to be repaid (thanks to American intransigence and other factors like inept British negotiation, the terms of the loans worked out after the war were, to say the least, oppressive).  (Read about this in Michael Hudson‘s Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance (New Edition)).  This set the stage for Weimar Germany, the Republic established out of the confusion following Wilhelm II’s abdication that lasted barely more than a decade until the Nazis rose to power in 1933.

Weimar Germany was a strange and unusual thing.  German reparations were so oppressive as to eliminate the possibility of economic recovery.  Moreover, repayment of the outrageous Allied loans was realistically tied to and dependent upon the payment of German reparations — despite self-serving American denials.  In that economically savage context, with recovery impossible, the German people lived a chaotically vibrant but inescapably desperate existence.  The classic novel of the Weimar era, Alfred Döblin‘s Berlin Alexanderplaz: Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf [Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf], portrays the times as well as anything (the relatively lazy can instead watch the 15+ hour adaptation Berlin Alexanderplatz by New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder).  Like the novel’s protagonist, good intentions fall prey to grim realities, and crime and prostitution become familiar responses to a life of limited opportunities.  Disgusting Nazi propaganda becomes a repository for misguided resentment and wounded pride, or, in Biberkopf’s case, simple gullibility.

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (married to each other twice) rose to prominence in this Weimer era.  Weill was a composer like Erik Satie or George Gershwin, seeking to bridge the gap between popular music and formal, classical composition.  Weill has been frequently compared to Mozart for the direct, lyrical qualities of his music, so simple but with a rich and nuanced depth underneath.

The music of this album comes from a number of Weill efforts: “Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera],” “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahogonny [The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny],” “Happy End” and “Das Berliner Requiem [Berlin Requiem]” with texts by Bertolt Brecht and “Der Silbersee, Ein Wintermärchen [The Silverlake, A Winter’s Tale]” with texts by Georg Kaiser.  What makes these particular recordings so wonderful is that the music is an honest and grim interpretation of Weill’s music.  When he originally scored “The Threepenny Opera,” he did not use a full orchestra.  Instead, the music was for seven musicians asked to play a total of twenty-three different instruments.  Alex Ross, in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, writes that “by asking his performers to take on so many roles, Weill guarantees that the playing will have, in place of soulless professional expertise, a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants energy.”  In that, one finds some of the essence of Weimar Germany, just like Franz Biberkopf the working-class protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz shifts his career among that of a pimp, necktie clip salesman, shoelace drummer (door-to-door salesman), newspaper barker, burglar.  Biberkopf’s determined but futile individualism has the same spirit as in Weill’s ingenious, street-wise compositions.

These particular recordings, with instrumentation like a ragged banjo and warbling organ on “Moritat vom Mackie Messer [The Ballad of Mack the Knife],” or an out-of-tune piano on “Bilbao-Song,” are true to the original Weill vision.  It is great that Brecht and Weill’s song has become something of a standard, but the slick renditions of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald and others miss something when the sense of fear and uncertainty is swept away with a very refined pop/jazz arrangement.  These 1955 recordings bring out something in Lenya’s voice too.  Recording amidst a once-grand city ruined by Allied terror campaigns, the sense of grim desperation that so characterized Weimar Germany just below the surface in the 1920s is palpable in her rough-hewn and gently aged voice.  The Great War (WWI) killed untold people, but the civilian infrastructure of Europe was largely untouched.  World War II changed that.  American callousness led the Air Force to switch to terror bombing of civilian targets starting with Berlin, then on to the fire-bombing of Dresden (memorialized in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death) and Tokyo, the dropping of napalm on Royan, France (read Howard Zinn, who participated as a bombardier), and culminating with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (later revealed to have been unnecessary in view of a Japanese willingness to surrender, but advanced to try to intimidate Stalin; read Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing The Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Gal Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb or Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century or even Peter Kuznick) — for their part the other war powers had their own instruments of terror, from the German Paris Gun and V-1 and V-2 rockets to the Japanese explosive devices delivered to mainland North America on balloons carried in the jet stream.  In spite of the Wirtschaftswunder, or German “Economic Miracle” of the post-WWII years made possible by cancellation of German internal debt (and with U.S. aggression in the Korean War serving to bolster the German economy), Berlin was still in visible ruins when Lenya returned (for more context, watch Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun [The Marriage of Maria Braun]).  However, the Berlin Wall, erected by the East to keep out CIA saboteurs (read William Blum Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (Updated Through 2003)), was still six years away.

In such a brutal century, Brecht and Weill’s murderous Macheath, the central character of “Mack the Knife,” seems like a sign of the times.  His knife, so the lyrics tell us, is out of sight, like the airplanes and rockets bringing down fire on civilians, or the economic subterfuge of government reparations and debt that invisibly suppressed the Germans, French and English in the Weimar era.  That is the way of Brecht’s theatrical vision.  Songs like “Alabama-Song” too (with lyrics some allege were co-written by Brecht’s girlfriend Elisabeth Hauptmann) capture pub life (during an era of American Prohibition), with deadpan refrains of “Oh don’t ask why / Oh don’t ask why.”  The words also tell of looking for a dollar, or else they, the singers, “must die.”  The contrast of the merciless themes and the seemingly light, sing-along performance throw light on the odd complexities of modern life.  Times have changed less than it may seem, only the origins of those realities are more concealed than ever.

Later attempts to make music ostensibly like this so often resort to irony.  There is no irony here.  There are contrasts, and dialectical devices, but everything is a direct representation of what is expressed.  This is music like little else.

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour (1972)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directors: Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel

Main Cast: Elvis Presley


An unusual and innovative documentary that chronicles part of Elvis’ 1975 U.S. tour.  It features a “multi-screen” format, with multiple moving images presented simultaneously.  The crew filmed Elvis performing with multiple cameras, and the film frequently presents a given performance from multiple camera angles shown side-by-side, shots of Elvis interspersed with shots of the audience, and clips of similar performances from different shows presented together.  A similar approach was used a few years later in The Longest Yard.  This finds Elvis around the time he was just starting to decline.  He had a successful show in Las Vegas, and had started to take that tour on the road.  He did two shows a night, and the grind of doing a similar show for years on end was taking its toll.  The performances in the film aren’t all great, but there are some good ones — particularly further in.  The filmmakers demanded special access to Elvis, and that results in scenes that show him shuttled to and from shows, harangued by fans, and excerpts from a pre-tour interview.  The filmmakers clearly have no real interest in Elvis’ music, but are looking in on the culture of his fans with a mixture of amusement and condescension.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, because there is no narration or even titles throughout the movie.  Mostly you just see a series of documentary footage clips, though the non-concert footage gravitates toward the craziest fans caught up in a vague cult of personality, without any reference to any discussion of the merits of the music.  What’s interesting is that some of the rehearsal footage shows how much Elvis liked gospel music and how some of the stripped-down rehearsals sounded a bit more interesting that the grandiose treatments on this studio albums and in the live shows.  By 1972, Elvis’ show had settled into a formula, doing mostly the same songs over and over.  He and his band still play them remarkably well, considering.  Yet the more intimate rehearsal performances sometimes reveal something that always seemed obscured on the albums and concerts of the era.

Donny Hathaway – Live

Live

Donny HathawayLive Atco SD 33-386 (1972)


Recorded at two performances, one on each coast (at The Troubadour in Hollywood and The Bitter End in New York City), Donny Hathaway’s Live takes on an intimate small-club feel throughout. The songs recorded on the West Coast would seem to come first. They have a smooth gloss. The songs that seem to come from performance in New York retain more brutal space and gaps. Regardless of where any one song was recorded, the entire collection presents a varied, evocative look at soul music from one of its greatest interpreters.

Donny Hathaway, still in his twenties, was perhaps the most intellectual soul or R&B performer of his day. Well, that may be misleading. He was among the most mature. Depth and clarity are ever-present in his music. The complexity of a song like “Hey Girl”, for example, is of no concern. It is effortless. Simple in its relation to the fervor of feelings sought, lost, held, doubted by practically all of us, the song’s evocation of an uncertain relationship is an experience in itself. That is the near miracle of the album. Every listen makes the present day seem to stretch out forever.

Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend” (popularly recorded by James Taylor) is a transcendent moment. For quite a while, Donny lets the audience carry most—not just some—of the vocals. There is a complete communion between those who began as separate groups of performers and audience. The union happens almost immediately. Hathaway gracefully lays out the first few chords on his electric piano and a cheer immediately rises. Just the first few seconds of that song are enough to restore a sense of purpose in the most lifeless among us. Hathaway’s confidence, poise, determination and generosity are evident.

Another spectacular cover is John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy”. Whimsical guitar and piano riffs punctuate Donny’s patient vocals. Like all his music, there is a warmth too rarely found elsewhere. Also, Donny shows he can downplay his gospel roots and still succeed in every way.

“Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” stretches out over four movements, with each lending an opportunity for different musicians to step to the front (like guitarists Mike Howard and Cornell Dupree, and “the baddest bass player in the country” Willie Weeks), each movement also lending to a changing emotional interpretation of the song. Certainly the funkiest number on the album, the extended (thirteen minute) performance highlights what an accomplished soul-jazz combo was at work.

Though plagued by severe depression through much of the coming years, the period when Live was recorded was Donny Hathaway’s creative peak. In his last years, Donny recorded little. His duets with Roberta Flack from the early 1970s–“Where Is the Love?”, etc.–found the most widespread popularity. Still, it will be Donny’s own records that will endure longest.

It would be too much to say this is one of the greatest albums ever made. There are no final greatest masterpieces. Contexts change. Even still, hell, Live is as close to the top of the heap as we’ll ever know.

The Electric Flag – The Electic Flag

The Electric Flag

The Electric FlagThe Electric Flag Columbia CS 9714 (1968)


Lester Bangs lamented that The Electric Flag got buzz in the press when more deserving acts languished in obscurity (in spite of Bangs’ best efforts).  There is just something disingenuous about The Electric Flag.  Yeah, they have a jazzy soul thing going, melded with slightly psychedelic blues rock.  But it seems too crass, just an assemblage of whatever seemed “hip” at the time.  It’s contrived.  These guys would have made a great studio band for somebody else, but on their own they just don’t have any good ideas of their own, just the ability to loosely amalgamate popular styles of the day.  It’s the kind of music they seemed obligated to make, not music that came from any kind of genuine passion or drive outside of rock careerism.  This just clings to forms that already had matured in the hands of others.  But, for what it’s worth, this album beats the seemingly better-known A Long Time Comin’.  Reference The Rascals too.

Traveling These Roads Between Heaven & Hell: Johnny Cash, Singer of Songs

Bitter Tears: Ballads of the Americna Indian

My selections for a “virtual” compilation of music by Johnny Cash, in the spirit of Bob Dylan‘s Biograph.  In other words, this steps out from the usual canon of accepted Cash classics and presents some of the hits together with non-single deep album tracks, live recordings, B-sides, demos, and other overlooked treasures.  Don’t consider this exhaustive.  There are plenty of great Cash recordings not featured here.  The list provides links to single releases, if any, plus the first album releases.

Disc 1:

  1. I Walk the Line” (1956); Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  2. Folsom Prison Blues” (1955); Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  3. “I Was There When It Happened” Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  4. “The Wreck of the Old ’97” Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)
  5. Hey, Porter!” (1955); Now Here’s Johnny Cash (1961)
  6. Get Rhythm” (1956); Greatest! (1959)
  7. Big River” (1958); Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous (1958)
  8. “Five Minutes to Live” The Man in Black: 1959-’62 (1991)
  9. Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958); Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous (1958)
  10. “The Ways of a Woman in Love” [alternate version] Roads Less Travelled: The Rare and Unissued Sun Recordings (2001)
  11. “Goodnight Irene” Original Sun Sound of Johnny Cash (1964)
  12. I Still Miss Someone” (1958); The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1958)
  13. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” Hymns by Johnny Cash (1959)
  14. “Drink to Me” Songs of Our Soil (1959)
  15. “The Great Speckled Bird” Songs of Our Soil (1959)
  16. Seasons of My Heart” (1960); Now, There Was a Song! Memories From the Past (1960)
  17. “Transfusion Blues” Now, There Was a Song! Memories From the Past (1960)
  18. The Rebel – Johnny Yuma” (1961); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  19. “In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home” The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)
  20. A Little at a Time” (1962); Old Golden Throat (1968)
  21. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (1962); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  22. “The Talking Leaves” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  23. “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  24. “Custer” Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964)
  25. Ring of Fire” (1963); Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)
  26. Understand Your Man” (1964); I Walk the Line (1964)
  27. It Ain’t Me, Babe” (1964); Orange Blossom Special (1965)
  28. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” Nashville at Newport (1995)
  29. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” Nashville at Newport (1995)
  30. “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)” Orange Blossom Special (1965)

Disc 2:

  1. “Mr. Lonesome” The Sound of Johnny Cash (1962)
  2. “The Road to Kaintuck” Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965)
  3. “Happiness Is You” Happiness Is You (1966)
  4. Johnny Cash & June Carter “Fast Boat to Sydney” Carryin’ On (1967)
  5. Folsom Prison Blues” (1968); At Folsom Prison (1968)
  6. “Dark as the Dungeon” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  7. “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  8. “Jackson” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  9. “I Got Stripes” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  10. “Greystone Chapel” At Folsom Prison (1968)
  11. “Tennessee Flat Top Box” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  12. “Remember the Alamo” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  13. “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  14. “Ring of Fire” Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (2011)
  15. “Darling Companion” At San Quentin (1969)
  16. A Boy Named SueAt San Quentin (1969)
  17. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley” At San Quentin (1969)
  18. Bob Dylan “Girl From the North Country” Nashville Skyline (1969)
  19. The Folk Singer” (1968); The Bootleg Series Vol. 2: From Memphis to Hollywood (2011)
  20. “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station” From Sea to Shining Sea (1968)
  21. “Daddy Sang Bass” At Madison Square Garden (2002)
  22. “He Turned the Water Into Wine” The Gospel Music of Johnny Cash (2008) (or version from the February 11, 1970 episode of “The Johnny Cash Show” – not available in album format)
  23. Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970); The Johnny Cash Show (1970)
  24. “Girl From the North Country” (with Joni Mitchell) The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 (2008)
  25. Flesh and Blood” (1971); I Walk the Line (1970)
  26. See Ruby Fall” (1969); Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970)
  27. “Wanted Man” Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Disc 3:

  1. Johnny Cash & June CarterIf I Were a Carpenter” (1969); Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970)
  2. “Orphan of the Road” Man in Black (1971)
  3. Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues” (1971); Man in Black (1971)
  4. You’ve Got a New Light Shining in Your Eyes(1971); Man in Black (1971)
  5. “The Battle of New Orleans” America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song (1972)
  6. Don’t Go Near the Water” (1974); Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  7. “King of the Hill” Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  8. “Southern Comfort” Ragged Old Flag (1974)
  9. My Old Kentucky Home (Turpentine and Dandelion Wine)” (1975); John R. Cash (1975)
  10. “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” På Österåker (1973)
  11. Johnny Cash & June Carter “The City of New Orleans” Johnny Cash and His Woman (1973)
  12. Orleans Parish Prison” (1972); Murder (2000)
  13. “Mississippi Sand” A Thing Called Love (1972)
  14. “Nasty Dan” (1974 or ’75); The Stars Come Out on Sesame Street (1979)
  15. Junkie” (1974); The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me (1974)
  16. I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs” (1975); Look at Them Beans (1975)
  17. One Piece at a Time” (1976); One Piece at a Time (1976)
  18. City Jail” (1977); The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  19. “Give It Away” The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  20. After the Ball” (1978); The Rambler (1977)
  21. “I Don’t Think I Could Take You Back Again” I Would Like to See You Again (1978)
  22. “Without Love” Rockabilly Blues (1980)
  23. “It Ain’t Nothing New Babe” Rockabilly Blues (1980)
  24. “Abner Brown” I Would Like to See You Again (1978)
  25. “Lay Me Down in Dixie” A Believer Sings the Truth (1979)
  26. The Baron” (1981); The Baron (1981)
  27. The Last Gunfighter Ballad” (1977); The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)

Disc 4

  1. “Cindy, I Love You” The Last Gunfighter Ballad (1976)
  2. “The Lily of the Valley” Personal File (2006)
  3. “No Earthly Good” Personal File (2006)
  4. “It Takes One to Know Me” Personal File (2006)
  5. “Highway Patrolman” Johnny 99 (1983)
  6. “Unwed Fathers” Rainbow (1985)
  7. “The Hobo Song” The Mystery of Life (1991)
  8. “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” Unearthed (2003)
  9. “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” American Recordings (1994)
  10. Delia’s Gone” (1994); American Recordings (1994)
  11. “Bird on a Wire” American Recordings (1994)
  12. “Spiritual” Unchained (1996)
  13. The Highwaymen “Live Forever [acoustic demo version]” The Road Goes On Forever: 10th Anniversary Edition (2005)
  14. “Ghost Riders in the Sky” In Ireland (2009)
  15. “Solitary Man” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  16. “Rowboat” Unchained (1996)
  17. “Memories Are Made of This” Unchained (1996)
  18. “Country Boy” Unchained (1996)
  19. “I’ve Been Everywhere” Unchained (1996)
  20. “Country Trash” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  21. “Field of Diamonds” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  22. “Mary of the Wild Moor” American III: Solitary Man (2000)
  23. Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson “Unchained” VH1 Storytellers (1998)
  24. Do LordUnearthed (2003)
  25. I’ll Fly AwayUnearthed (2003)
  26. “Redemption Song” (with Joe Strummer) Unearthed (2003)
  27. “Help Me” American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Sam Raimi

Main Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff

L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series is often credited as being one of the most important fictional universes to emerge from America, or at least the first important one to break from European traditions of “fairy tales”.  There were many, many books written about Oz, various theatrical productions, and many movies too.  The success of the original printing of the book had as much to do with the format as the actual content.  It was a full color book with text set in a stylized arrangement that interspersed it with illustrations by W.W. Denslow.  Children’s books were not customarily printed so lavishly at the time, but the success of the first Oz book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) turned it into more or less an industry standard.  Critics debated whether Baum’s or Denslow’s contributions were the basis for the book’s success–though most tend to unfairly overlook the publisher George M. Hill Company’s role in arranging the lavish printing.  The credit given to Denslow caused a rift with Baum and the two ceased working together.  Denslow even published separate illustrations related to Oz without Baum’s involvement.  Following the smash success of the first book, Baum teamed up with a theater group and developed a Broadway show that deviated from his writings and played up the latest in theatrical special effects.  He tried later theatrical shows, but without the input of the Broadway team those fizzed.  The earliest movies were silent, and Baum himself made some.  He even developed a touring multi-media show that incorporated some silent films.  Then the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland, though not considered a commercial success at the time, went on to become one of the most iconic and beloved American movies of all time.  Other movies and shows followed, from The Wiz to Return to Oz.  Spinoffs and related books continued to be made.  Baum tried to pursue other work, but the financial rewards of the Oz series always proved too attractive, and he continued to write Oz books even after clear statements that the series was finished.

If you notice a trend in the history of the Oz works it’s that they have been manipulated, contorted and exploited in every possible way, by Baum and others.  There is nothing sacred about the Oz universe.  But an interesting detail is that the biggest successes have be borne out of collaboration, first between Baum, Denslow and the George M. Hill Company, but later with the Broadway show, then with the Victor Fleming, Judy Garland movie with songs by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen.  So there’s a feeling that the entire enterprise is one that sort of invites reinterpretation and tinkering.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is a big-budget “prequel” by Sam Raimi for the Disney company, which recently gave Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland similar digital-effects-laden treatment.  While the Alice movie was a disaster, Oz: The Great and Powerful is actually quite good.

My interpretation of the film Continue reading “Oz: The Great and Powerful”

Fred Claus

Fred Claus (2007)

Warner Bros.

Director: David Dobkin

Main Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, John Michael Higgins, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Spacey, Elizabeth Banks

There is something rather interesting about this film, Fred Claus.  On the surface, it is an attempt to have an “offbeat” christmas movie like Elf, with sort of a bad streak along the lines of Bad Santa and plot elements that recall Office SpaceContinue reading “Fred Claus”

Gospel Music Guide

A guide to gaining an introduction to gospel music (read: afro-american gospel music).  When you get down to it, gospel is the rosetta stone of american music, and there are few styles of american music that haven’t either influenced gospel or taken influence from it.  Hopefully the religious content of the music doesn’t keep people away.  You can be indifferent or even openly hostile to religion and still enjoy this powerful music.

 

Various Artists Collections
Broad overview sets:
Gospel: The Ultimate Collection
Gospel – The Ultimate Collection (2007)

All things considered, this may be the best historical overview of gospel music I’ve seen yet, rivalled or surpassed only by the Jubilation! series mentioned below.  There is definitely a good amount of material from the “golden age of gospel” in the 1950s here, which is something lots of other gospel box sets inexplicably omit.  At four discs, there is a ton of great stuff from a lot of different periods and styles.  This set does stop in the middle of the 1950s though, so you don’t get much if anything anything from the 1960s onward.  But you might want to decide if you like gospel enough first before delving into the 1960s and 70s stuff.  And for an introduction it’s probably best to avoid contemporary gospel anyway.

Jubilation! Volume One: Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 1: Black Gospel (1992)

Jubilation! Volumes 1 & 2 make up probably the best two-disc introduction to gospel available, and together are probably my number one recommendation for someone just beginning to listen to gospel.  Vols. 1 & 2 represent just about all of the major gospel talents, and the song selection is outstanding.  Truly a superb set.  The only caveat I would add is that the focus here is more on modern gospel, and little space is reserved for early 20th Century gospel, but that is actually a good approach for an introductory set like this.

Jubilation! Volume 2: More Black Gospel
Jubilation! Great Gospel Performances – Volume 2: More Black Gospel (1992)

Another great collection of material, similar to Vol. 1.  You will really want to investigate both Vols. 1 & 2, though you could easily start with either one.  There is a Vol. 3, but it focuses on country gospel, which is not the focus of this guide.

The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1
The History of Black Gospel Music: Volume 1 (2008)

The first of a seven-album series, apparently available only as a digital download (in the USA at least).  It features some great stuff from a variety of eras.  There is a bit more non-quartet, folk/blues material here than many gospel collections.

Gospel Music
Gospel Music (2006)

A great collection.  All awesome stuff.  Maybe the very best single-disc introduction out there.  The only complaint about this set, and it may be a significant one, is the lack of credits for personnel, recording dates, etc.  So you aren’t told which of the two studio versions of Dorothy Love Coates’ “Strange Man” is included here, for instance.

Nuggets of The Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958
Nuggets of the Golden Age of Gospel 1945-1958 (2009)

Bob Marovich review: http://www.theblackgospelb…golden-age.html

Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007)
Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) (2009)

Like Get Right With God (see below), Fire in My Bones focuses on great but lesser-known recordings.  In a way it’s a kind of alternate history of modern age gospel, documenting especially its vital and continuing tradition of do-it-yourself recordings.  This also covers quite a large time frame (more than six decades).  With some of the basics under your belt, this is a fun and exciting extension to delve deeper into the genre.  The obscurity of the recordings means there is little overlap with other gospel compilations.  A follow-up collection was released as This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM, 1957-1982, but definitely start with Fire in My Bones.

Goodbye Babylon
Goodbye, Babylon (2003)

This well-regarded, handsomely packaged collection covers an immense amount of gospel up to about WWII, as well as a select few retro-sounding post-WWII cuts.  That said, this set stops short of covering the modernization of gospel during and beyond its so-called “golden age”.  So despite its massive size, this is just the tip of the iceberg, covering only the early roots of recorded gospel music.  It covers country gospel in addition to afro-american gospel.  If you look into this, the Jubilation! discs mentioned above make for excellent follow-ups, focusing on more modern gospel.

Testify! The Gospel Box
Testify!: The Gospel Box (1999)

One of the few gospel collections I’ve seen that actually takes a crack at summarizing many different periods, including the difficult task of putting together a disc of contemporary gospel (at least through the 1980s I believe).  I haven’t heard this to judge well myself.  But this set cuts a wide swath through many different decades of gospel music.

The Essential Gospel Sampler
The Essential Gospel Sampler (1994)

Good selection of some of the most popular names in gospel.

Ultimate Gospel Supermix

My own “virtual” compilation.

More period-specific, stylistically-specific, or label-specific sets:
American Primitive Vol. I
American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36) (1997)

Awesome selection of early pre-WWII gospel.  Lots of this stuff straddles the line between blues and gospel.  Probably a less intimidating option than the Goodbye Babylon set, which seemed to borrow heavily from these selections because of the substantial overlap.  Pair this set with the Gospel Music one above and you’ll get a fairly good overview of both old and modern gospel.

A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920's-1940's
A Warrior On the Battlefield: A Cappella Trailblazers, 1920’s-1940’s (1997)

A set that focuses on jubilee gospel groups.

Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets
Kings of the Gospel Highway: The Golden Age of Gospel Quartets (2000)

A collection of songs from some of the great gospel “quartets” (they often actually had more than four members) from primarily the later part of the 1940s but also some from the 1950s and one Soul Stirrers track from 1939.   This actually picks up where the A Warrior On the Battlefield set leaves off, stylistically and chronologically.  The liner notes are also quite good in explaining various aspects of the music and the personalities behind it.

The Gospel Sound
The Gospel Sound (1994)

1927-66 sampler of material from Columbia Records (or at least acquired by them prior to this release).

Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954)
Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 1 (1947-1954) (1997)

Specialty was the premier label for hard gospel quartets in the 1950s.  I could quibble about some of the song selections here, but there is no doubt you get some great music and an introduction to most of the key groups on the Specialty label.  Continued with Golden Age Gospel Quartets, Vol. 2 (1954-1963).

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel
Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1988)

Awesome collection of mostly obscure stuff from the golden age.  It’s all high-energy and really fun.  The way this is assembled definitely reminds me of Harry Smith (who created the Anthology of American Folk Music), and what a collection of gospel from this period would probably sound like if he ever got around to putting one together.

Golden Age of Gospel
Golden Age of Gospel (2001)

The premier gospel label of the 1950s was Specialty.  But Vee-Jay took over that role around 1959 and held the crown until the label went bankrupt in 1966, when HOB and then Savoy took over that role.  Of course there were other notable labels like Nashboro and Peacock operating throughout these periods too.  But for late 50s/early 60s stuff, you can’t go wrong with Vee-Jay.  The label represented another step in the ongoing pattern of changes in gospel styles.  The “hard” gospel of Specialty was giving way to smoother, more intricate arrangements with more pronounced instrumental accompaniment.

I mention this particular compilation because it is only one disc, but it may be somewhat hard to find and it seems at least some tracks included here are live ones instead of the original studio recordings.  A more extensive collection of Vee-Jay gospel is the four disc series that begins with The Best of Vee-Jay Gospel, Volume One.

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966
Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966 (1997)

Gospel music played a big role in the 1950s/60s civil rights or freedom movement in the United States.  Here’s an interesting look at that role.

The Best of Nashboro Gospel
Best of Nashboro Gospel (1995)

Nashboro, and associated labels like Creed, put out a lot of good gospel over a relatively long period of time.  It was fairly common for big names in gospel to switch record labels through the years.  The demise of Vee-Jay records in 1966 sent many top stars to labels like Nashboro and HOB.

This Is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends
This is Gospel Vol. 28: HOB Legends (2006)
Gospel's Finest
Gospel’s Finest (1992)

If you ask me, most contemporary gospel from the 1980s onward is not worthwhile.  But don’t let my views cloud your judgment.  Here’s a set of 1980s gospel.  Decide for yourself.  If you want more recent gospel, you can look into the “WOW Gospel” series that begins with Wow Gospel 1998 (though you want the “Gospel” series not “Hits”, “Worship”, etc.).

Individual Artist Selections
People totally unfamiliar with gospel music may want to listen to a various artists collection first, but here are some single-artist selections that I find to be particularly worth checking out:
The Golden Gate Quartet Collection

The Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet Collection (2005)

The Golden Gate Quartet represents a different era than lots of other music on this list.  They had jazz-inflected rhythms that stretched gospel beyond earlier forms, but compared to more modern acts the tempos were slower and there were not really any lead solos.  But this is still great music.  There are certainly plenty of different Golden Gate Quartet compilations available.  This two-disc one seems to capture a lot of their best recordings, though in some ways it’s still incomplete.

He's My Rock: Their Early Sides

The Soul Stirrers

He’s My Rock: Their Early Sides (2003)

The early Soul Stirrers with R.H. Harris were the single most influential gospel group.  Ever.  More than any other group, they blazed a trail away from the jubilee style that had dominated gospel for many decades–a style epitomized by The Golden Gate Quartet–and toward hard gospel of the 1950s.  R.H. Harris made lead soloists the stars of gospel “quartets”, which had been expanded past just four members.  This collection features a tremendous amount of really great music.

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

The Dixie Hummingbirds

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 (2001)

The best gospel of the 1940s is right here.  Lead singer Ira Tucker was just unbelievably good.  He was sort of gospel’s first “rock star” in my book.  Maybe he was just the first rock star period, running down the aisles, jumping off stages…

Love Lifted Me/My Rock

Swan Silvertones

Love Lifted Me / My Rock (1991)

Though maybe I have a sentimental attachment, I would say The Swan Silvertones were the single greatest gospel group ever.  They had it all.  This set of hard gospel from the 1950s is absolutely essential.

Oh Lord, STand By Me / MArching Up to Zion

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Oh Lord, Stand By Me / Marching Up to Zion (1991)

Another great set of hard gospel from the 1950s.

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns

Mahalia Jackson

Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns (1991)

Probably the single most famous gospel singer ever.  A voice so powerful few could ever come close.  This collection makes a good introduction even though it does not cover recordings from the early part of her career (for that, look to How I Got Over: The Apollo Sessions 1946-1954).

Books
The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times by Anthony Heilbut
How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel by Horace C. Boyer
Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music by W.K. McNeil (ed.)
Blues and Gospel Records: 1890-1943 by Robert M.W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard W. Rye
Gospel Records: 1943-1969 by Cedric W. Hayes and Robert Laughton
Web Links
Just Moving On Blog
The Black Gospel Blog
Holy Ghost Blog
Sinner’s Crossroads Radio Show
Black Gospel Collector’s Forum

The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones Decca LK 4605 (1964)


The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair.  It is full of energetic takes on American blues.  The group plays with enthusiasm.  Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here.  Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable.  This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own.  Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect.  They got better quickly.  What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.

Veblen’s Precedent for Cloward/Piven Strategies

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977) was a watershed.  Mark and Paul Engler recently wrote a an excellent summary “Can Frances Fox Piven’s Theory of Disruptive Power Create the Next Occupy?” (another decent introduction to her work is Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?).  The basic premise of the Piven/Cloward theory of action, dubbed the Piven/Cloward Strategy when first suggested in 1966 with regard to welfare enrollment, is that the poor–generally powerless–can exert some power, under certain circumstances, by collectively disrupting the smooth function of social institutions, and can make gains relative to vested interests as institutional actors hasten to restore some form of stability.  The more provocative aspects of the theory and associated strategy are that unions are only effective in early stages, when they are initially formed.  Once established, their own institutional dynamics tend to subvert the disruptive potential that is their primary source of power.  Another aspect that Piven explored in greater detail in later work was that conventional channels of activity (electoral politics) generally co-opt or mute disruptive activities, and have the effect of neutralizing and undermining the demands of poor people’s movements.

But Piven/Cloward’s theories here also had precedent.  The cross-disciplinary work of economist Thorstein Veblen raised similar points that merit further examination.  The early chapters of The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) discuss how “vested interests” use “sabotage” to withhold efficiency and disrupt the interrelated parts of a complex industrial economy to extract wealth for personal gain and the expense of the wider community’s general well-being:

“business men…have an interest in making …disturbances of the system large and frequent, since it is in the conjunctures of change that their gain emerges.”

The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904)

For a modern example, think how the Enron corporation fabricated blackouts/brownouts to drive up energy prices.  This is Veblen’s notion of “sabotage” at its purest.  But Veblen didn’t view the actions of a company like Enron as the exception, but rather the rule.

“It is a matter of course and of absolute necessity to the conduct of business, that any discretionary businessman must be free to deal or not to deal in any given case; to limit or withhold the equipment under his control, without reservation. Business discretion and business strategy, in fact, has no other means by to work out its aims. So that, in effect, all business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to judicious use of sabotage.”

An Inquiry Into the Nature of Peace, and the Terms of Its Perpetuation (1917)

Veblen returned to this theme in his final book, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America:

“any person who has the legal right to withhold any part of the necessary industrial apparatus or materials from current use will be in a position to impose terms and exact obedience, on pain of rendering the community’s joint stock of technology inoperative to that extent.

“Ownership of industrial equipment and natural resources confers such a right legally to enforce unemployment, and so to make the community’s workmanship useless to that extent. This is the Natural Right of Investment.

“Plainly, ownership would be nothing better than an idle gesture without this legal right of sabotage. Without the power of discretionary idleness, without the right to keep the work out of the hands of the workmen and the product out of the market, investment and business enterprise would cease. This is the larger meaning of the Security of Property.”

Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America (1923)

The use of sabotage was not limited to the captains of industry.  In the first chapter of The Engineers and the Price System, “On the Nature and Uses of Sabotage,” though, Veblen makes an interesting point:

Any strike is of the nature of sabotage, of course. Indeed, a strike is a typical species of sabotage. That strikes have not been spoken of as sabotage is due to the accidental fact that strikes were in use before this word came into use. So also, of course, a lockout is another typical species of sabotage. That the lockout is employed by the employers against the employees does not change the fact that it is a means of defending a vested right by delay, withdrawal, defeat, and obstruction of the work to be done. Lockouts have not usually been spoken of as sabotage, for the same reason that holds true in the case of strikes. All the while it has been recognized that strikes and lockouts are of identically the same character.

“All this does not imply that there is anything discreditable or immoral about this habitual use of strikes and lockouts. They are part of the ordinary conduct of industry under the existing system, and necessarily so. So long as the system remains unchanged these measures are a necessary and legitimate part of it.

***

“And yet, that extent and degree of paralysis from which the civilized world’s industry is suffering just now, due to legitimate businesslike sabotage, goes to argue that the date may not be far distant when the interlocking processes of the industrial system shall have become so closely interdependent and so delicately balanced that even the ordinary modicum of sabotage involved in the conduct of business as usual will bring the whole to a fatal collapse. The derangement and privation brought on by any well organized strike of the larger sort argues to the same effect.”

The Engineers and the Price System (1921)

He talks about militant worker activism (like Coxey’s Army) as being no better or worse than lockouts by employers.  But Veblen clearly sees the context as being different.  He equates the two in order to argue for a leveling and equalizing effect.  Establishing worker rights to strike on par with the rights of business to engage in a capital strike has the effect of promoting fairness.  Indeed, in The Theory of Business Enterprise he notes that strikers “seek their ends by extra-legal means of coercion” because the court system is set up on terms favorable to businessmen, not to workers, and exigencies thus force extra-legal action like strikes.  Alan Nasser wrote a rather excellent article discussing this topic, “Political Power Made Invisible
Who Strikes, and Against Whom?,” and elaborated in a contemporary setting how Veblen’s insights are fundamentally correct, yet also how economists and the media tend to selectively ignore capital strikes and business cycle fluctuations in this context.

Cloward and Piven aren’t linked to Veblen too frequently.  More common would be a link from Cloward/Piven to Karl Polanyi, who worked independently in a manner somewhat redundant with Veblen, but who wrote in a more “acceptable” and standardized academic format.  The extension of Veblen that Cloward and Piven offered was to extend the theory beyond the purely economic sphere.  They emphasized how government bureaucrats and (especially) politicians sought stability and, above all, predictability.  These things are undermined by disruptive action.  Attempts to restore stability offer opportunities for concessions and advancement of the interests of the poor that would not be granted otherwise.  Like Veblen said about the courts being set up on terms favorable to business rather than workers, the electoral system is not set up on terms favorable to the poor.  And so, Cloward and Piven made the keen observation that the poor have only certain options to exercise any power to advance their interests to achieve greater fairness.

The recently deceased historian Gabriel Kolko wrote a book, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History 1900-1916 (1963), that also took a similar approach in taking a fresh look at the so-called “progressive era” to find that business interests aligned with government (as part of a “regulatory capture” dynamic) to suppress disruption to better protect their vested interests.  Kolko’s book was well researched and fit quite squarely in line with Veblen’s original theories.

A somewhat similar political debate between Stephen D’Arcy and Vijay Prashad was also published recently, “Are Riots Good for Democracy?” D’Arcy emerges with the better argument, because Prashad seems to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in being cowed by certain atrocities of riots while neglecting atrocities that riots often are meant to redress.  As D’Arcy notes, not all riots are created equal, and they aren’t always a force for good.  Prashad is certainly correct that riots, and disruption more generally, can be used as a pretext for a subsequent authoritarian crackdown (to wit: German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder made Die dritte generation [The Third Generation] to emphasize the idea that the Baader-Meinhoff Red Army Faction’s militant “urban guerrilla” actions were used to justify a regressive crackdown; or read a history of the Haymarket Riot and its aftermath, like James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket (2006)).