Johnny Cash – Songs of Our Soil

Songs of Our Soil

Johnny CashSongs of Our Soil Columbia CS 8148 (1959)

Songs of Our Soil was an important album in developing the sound of most of Johnny Cash’s albums of the following decade.  The Fabulous Johnny Cash had mostly continued with the same reverb-laden minimalist country with a rock-inflected beat and emphasis on love songs as on Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous.  But here the guitar is less loud, and things like a piano feature on occasion too.  Backing vocals by The Jordanaires are frequent.  Cash’s voice is a little more distinct and prominent.  Reverb and twang are quietly diminished.  The result is something a little more folk than country sounding, with a sophistication more palatable to pop audiences.  This seemed to arise from a time when Cash’s overt attempts at success had already been made, and having used up those commercial ideas he tended to just kind of do what came naturally.  At least this is comes across more like the music that epitomizes the necessary (if uncalculated), homegrown character of guy who managed to maintain a successful music career through the rest of his life on “his” terms.  It works pretty well.  Cash does seem just a little stiff in places though, and some listeners don’t seem to care for the backing vocals.  But when in later years he swapped the male backing vocals for female ones from his future wife June Carter and members of The Carter Family, things settled into the form that worked so well on many albums to come.

When it comes to the songs, a lot deal with death, but more importantly they conjure up Americana themes a lot like the view of pre-industrial America later featured in the film Days of Heaven.  Cash avoids too many romance songs and manages to focus on farm and country life without any hint of rural naiveté.  This might be called the first concept album he did, though the concept is pretty mild.  The opener “Drink to Me” is an adaptation of the old English song “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” (which was based on a 1616 poem by Ben Jonson derived from Greek verses by Philostratus).  On the posthumously-released Personal File Cash revealed that it was the first song he ever performed publicly, for a high school event.  It also was the song the little owlet Owl Jolson didn’t want to sing in the classic 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon by Tex Avery “I Love to Singa.”  “I Want to Go Home” is also an adaptation, of “The John B. Sails,” which would be performed with greater success by The Beach Boys as “Sloop John B” on Pet Sounds a few years later.

Most listeners will probably want to head to other Cash recordings first, and come back to this if they like his early 60s material to see how he arrived there.  This one is still pretty welcoming, suitable for repeat listens, and really one of the more durable albums of Cash’s whole career.  It isn’t just an offering from the “Johnny Cash” persona.  It comes closer to revealing the guy who created the persona of “Johnny Cash” than anything else to this point, and even much of what came later.

Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar

Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar

Johnny CashJohnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar Sun LP-1220 (1957)

Johnny Cash was an artist that sort of arrived with all his major talents intact right from the beginning.  His music evolved and changed over time, for sure.  But his velvety bass-baritone voice and endearing brand of time-worn country wisdom are all in full effect on this, his first full-length LP.  Being the early days of the LP format, this material wasn’t strictly recorded for the LP and many of these songs were previously released as singles.  They were recorded between May 1955 and August of 1957.  Cash plays with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, the original Tennessee Two.  It’s a very spare and minimalist sound, which lets Cash’s inimitable voice take the spotlight.  Perkins was a guitarist of pretty limited means.  He really couldn’t play much more than a simple boom-chicka-boom rhythm, without any complex solos to speak of.  He does a lot of the typical country strumming, alternating between low notes and high notes in the style of Maybelle Carter.  But it’s iconic.  Perkins was the perfect guitarist to support Cash.  His playing has a little bit of rock influence, but that just provides a little, subtly energetic, minimally urban counterpoint to Cash’s traditional country leanings.  The other key aspect of the sound of this record is the reverb.  Like much of the music recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee, the reverb drenches the music in seductive, politely dangerous charisma.

The songs here are great.  They include Cash’s first hit, “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” a Hank Williams tune, “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle,” and a song probably written by Charles Noell about a 1902 train wreck, “The Wreck of the Old ’97.”  “I Walk the Line” was a song Cash liked to say was his best, and it’s hard to argue.  Another of his most famous compositions, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was written after Cash saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Germany.  He pretty liberally borrowed the melody and lyrical structure of Gordon Jenkins‘ “Crescent City Blues” (part of “The Second Dream – The Conductor” from Gordon Jenkins’ Seven Dreams (A Musical Fantasy)), and paid Jenkins in the 1970s for what he borrowed.  He also adapted the famous line “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” from Jimmie Rodgers‘ “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)“: “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma/just to see her jump and fall.”  But Cash’s song is superior to any of its reference points.  “I Was There When It Happened” is a country gospel number.  Cash wanted to perform gospel music from the beginning, but opportunities were limited to record it in the early days.  It would remain a factor in his music for his entire career.

What made Cash so special is damn hard to put your finger on.  He sang about a lot of the ordinary aspects of life: work, travel, liberty, death, religion.  He did do romance and love songs, but a lot less than many other famous singers.  When he did do them, they weren’t anything like the hyper-sexualized fare that came to dominate rock music.  There was a connection to the “old weird America” that Greil Marcus described with respect to Harry Smith’s iconic Anthology of American Folk Music.  Cash’s songwriting, as well as his song selection, tended to emphasize an “ordinary” individual’s reaction to extreme situations: being confined to prison, natural disasters, threats to making a living, and so on.  He confronted these situations with varied amounts of humor, lament, determination, dignity and enthusiasm.  Yeah, Cash could take these situations and make them fun and funny.  But that’s just the way his music reflected how human being sometimes deal with stress and tragedy, and what they aspire to in the best of times.

Cash only stayed at Sun Records for about three years.  Sun continued to release his recordings for years after he left, in part because Cash left for a bigger label before his Sun contract was finished, forcing him to do a few contract-fulfillment recording sessions after he announced his departure.  Although this album sounds unmistakably of its time, it doesn’t really sound “dated” at all, in the sense of losing its appeal to modern audiences.  This is one of the essential Cash albums.  There is not a bad track on the whole thing.

Goodbye, Babylon

Goodbye Babylon

Various ArtistsGoodbye, Babylon Dust-to-Digital DTD-01 (2003)

It simply isn’t possible to consider the history of American music in any sort of objective, comprehensive way without considering its religious music.  As the liner notes quite astutely put it, despite at lot of rhetoric about freedom of religion, the United States has always been a predominantly christian nation of a decidedly protestant variety.  What freedom there was manifested itself primarily in the ability of the evangelical movement, epitomized by the pentecostal (or “sanctified”) movement, to lend itself to musical expression in a completely open-ended fashion.  And left to their own devices, these religious movements did indeed construct their own vocabularies of musical texts and performance styles.  It is hard not to be amazed at the music here.

Many of the greatest american folk recordings are here.  From Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother‘s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)” and “I’ll Be Rested (When the Roll is Called)”, The Carter Family‘s “River of Jordan” and “Keep on the Sunny Side”, Rev. Sister Mary Nelson‘s “Judgment”, and other gems like Rev. Gary Davis‘ “I Belong to the Band – Hallelujah!”.  Now, many of these songs have already entered the canon through previous compilations like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music and John Fahey‘s American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel.  But this is still perhaps one of the most ambitious gospel box sets yet assembled.

The focus here is on the earliest American religious recordings of the 20th Century, up through the 1940s.  The recordings included actually stretch into the 1960s, but those later recordings are exclusively those that recreate the styles of much earlier times.  So despite the massive size of this set, it bears mentioning that the scope is rather specific.  The modernization of gospel is only implied, most notably by way of tracks from The Silver Leaf Quartette of Norfolk and The Trumpeteers.  The Soul Stirrers, The Swan Silvertones, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and many others of the very greatest gospel acts are mentioned only in the liner notes, and are not represented by any song selections.  One oddity here that shouldn’t be overlooked is that this collection is integrated, intermixing white religious songs with black gospel, which certainly does not make for a historically accurate account.  That said, the set’s only other real faults are the triviality and superficiality of some of the liner notes, the tendency toward a mere historical curiosity value of the last disc of sermons, and the over-reliance on rather marginal country gospel songs to round out the collection.

This set should be considered like one volume of an encyclopedia of American music.  And even beyond the boundaries of North America.  In Terrence Malick‘s The Thin Red Line, a group of pacific islanders walk through their village singing a song.  Why do its harmonies sound so much like “Standing on the Promises” by The Tennessee Mountaineers?  That’s a big question, and not just in regard to a specific comparison between those two songs.  This set poses many big questions about that evolution and growth of modern music, and where things come together and diverge…

Patti Smith – Banga


Patti SmithBanga Columbia 88697 22217 2 (2012)

Assured pop/rock music suits the mature Patti Smith.  After an increasingly disappointing string of albums for Columbia late in life, Banga is her strongest offering in a long, long time.  It simply tries, more successfully than the tediously nostalgic Twelve, the bland Gung Ho, or the inconsistent and forced Trampin’.  She is making music a little less aggressively “rocking” and more pleasantly and melodically poppy (with echoes of her late 1980s effort Dream of Life).

Frankly, Patti in her late 60s fronting raw punk rock would seem a bit out of place.  It is not the sort of thing someone her age can pull off, if for no other reason than it was a technique of the past and such a thing would only appeal to listeners stuck in the past.  Instead, she is crafting detailed, nuanced pop songs.  Everything she does here has precedent, not necessarily in her work, but in rock and pop generally.  She summons it.  She guides it.  She makes a case for the continued relevance of pleasant sounding rock music to open a channel with audiences.

Many of these songs are tributes, to fallen comrades or simply historical figures.  “Maria” (for the late actress Maria Schneider) builds gradually to some of the most prominent electric guitar work on the whole album.  The opener “Amerigo” is about Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who is the namesake of America.  But the song is a meditation on how the New World has the capacity to change the European colonizers as much as they sought to conquer it.  “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter)” is for Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.  It has touches of cabaret jazz, wedded to psychedelic guitar and stark spoken word from Smith.  Bits of “Constantine’s Dream” seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to The Birthday Party‘s goth-rock staple “Junkyard.”

The best that Banga has to offer is a steady determination to keep going in the right direction.  That is, it doesn’t give in to complacent comforts of later life.  It doesn’t just toil away in the same way as before though.  Patti is still trying to adapt to circumstance.  This is her most inspiring quality.  She is a shining example of how there are ways to look at the world that bend through time but keep moving toward some kind of good and better world.

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project

Blank Project

Neneh CherryBlank Project Smalltown Supersound STS248 (2014)

Cherry’s first solo album in more than a decade has her inhabiting a completely different space.  Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet) produces.  This is largely a spare, cerebral IDM-style electronic album.  For the most part, Cherry sings against minimalist backing.  It is hardly more than a percussive backdrop at times (“Across the Water”).  There is a minor-key quality to much of it.  The songs are moody and despondent.  The tendency is towards drama, particularly from a perspective of trying to “get by” unscathed in a contemporary, affluent yet alienating urban environment.  This suits her voice, which is a little coarser and breathy than before.  It is also about testament.  The songs are a patchwork of little statements attesting to efforts to hold things together.  The best stuff is mostly in the first half of the album.  But the last half still holds some surprises.  “Everything” has droning keyboards against highly synthetic drums and a pulsing sound almost like a squeaky shaft of some industrial machine or an indistinct alarm or siren.  Cherry sings rhythmically, almost like a rapper.  Moments like those demonstrate her greatest strength: pulling together bits of lots of different genres.  She creates an aesthetic that welcomes them all.

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo Columbia CS 9670  (1968)

Here’s a very well crafted album, free from any identifiable faults, that most listeners will probably like.  I tend to agree with Lester Bangs, providing context in a two-part review of The StoogesFun House for CREEM Magazine, that The Byrds and their ilk were really an obvious and direct electrified extension of acoustic folk of the early 1960s, and their attempts at genre crossover, like this album of country/rock, really presented a straightforward combination of the styles that would have inevitably been attempted by somebody at some point.  They take proven elements from country and rock and set them side-by-side.  The vocal harmonies sound like typical smooth, airy and Anglo-centric Byrds stuff, and the country material is all authentic twang.  But even if the Byrds rarely take any real chances, you can’t really argue with the craftsmanship here.  Tons of great old tunes and covers of contemporary country, folk and R&B too.  If you are going to do the obvious, you can’t make any mistakes, and on that score The Byrds really deliver.

Frank Sinatra – The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

Frank SinatraThe Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952 Legacy C4K 64681 (1995)

Few singers have established themselves the way Frank Sinatra did.  He is instantly recognizable.  Even people who don’t really listen to much music, and certainly not Sinatra, probably still know who he was. He got his start in the mid 1930s as a singer with big bands, and his solo career took off in the early 1940s.  But his later career, once he had crossed over into the movies, and became associated with Las Vegas and the “rat pack”, for a long while took precedence in the popular consciousness.  So The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952 is an opportunity to go back to Sinatra’s formative years.  These are the recordings that helped make Sinatra Sinatra, and set up everything that came later.

There is a nearly cloistered quality to this music, particularly in the earliest songs of this batch.  It is as if that music tries to take a moment in time and encase it in a hermetically sealed vial.  Sinatra and his primary conductor and sometimes arranger of this period Axel Stordahl made music that seems to fit a particular constellation of the period of WWII and the immediate post-war period.  The gentle orchestration with sedate rhythms, with the lightest possible syncopation, horns and strings that appear at the “proper” times in response to Sinatra’s vocal statements — it all contributes to a sense of an agreed desire for safety and security.  Although the song lyrics often deal with romance and associated heartbreak, the way that Sinatra and Stordahl deal with those themes is to, in a sense, belittle them.  Heartbreak and romantic loss are trivialized.  In the aftermath of a major war, these are treated as trifling concerns, or at least ones that can be taken in stride.  A dutiful resolve is all it takes to move on from such hurts, or so it would seem from these recordings.  “The Night We Call It a Day” is emblematic of the way these songs assign a proper place to emotion.

On the other hand, the earliest songs lie in the realm of simple pleasures.  There is never a sense of pretension that this was “great” music.  These are meant to be popular tunes, a far echo of “highbrow” European classical music, though at the same time also clearly indebted to a type of orchestrated pop music with quasi-operatic bel canto singing that was still popular two decades or so earlier.  It also is nearly indistinguishable from a great deal of film music of the black and white Hollywood era before the McCarthy hearings.  The orchestration rests on very familiar and recurrent styles.  Typical is a kind of cradling effect, with swooping swells of strings embellished with vibrato.  Hushed vocal choruses back Sinatra more frequently than in the later years too.  The effect is like a velvet-lined case for a luxurious piece of jewellery.  And, make no mistake, the jewel it cradles is Sinatra’s voice.

Sinatra is still young across the first two discs.  And he has talent to spare.  His young voice had a confident tone, yet without any sort of brute force bombast or acrobatics that typically accompany confidence.  Take for instance Paul Robeson, who was another of the biggest stars on the Columbia roster in the 1940s.  Robeson had a voice that seemed like it was summoned from primordial depths, bringing with it all the aspirations, pain, suffering and joy of human existence.  An anthropologist took a Robeson recording to a non-western tribal village where the chief was impressed, which is really about the tone of Robeson’s voice alone.  The young Sinatra, on the other hand, often came across as scrappy, even waif-like (just compare him on his rendition of a song strongly associated with Robeson: “Ol’ Man River”).  He seemed to succeed and earn his confidence through wit and ingenuity alone.  It was a practiced sort of skill, something learned.  He embodies the kind of Horatio Alger myth of self-determination.  But that’s too harsh.  Sinatra was a tremendously talented singer.  His greatest assets from the beginning were a purity of tone and an impeccable sense of rhythm.  In the earliest parts of his career, these things were deployed mostly for sentimental ballads.  In that setting, he builds dramatic tensions through timing.  But really, it does seem like the occasional tracks with more of a jazzy feel, almost the opposite of the sentimental ballads, are where Sinatra shines brightest.  Jazz syncopation gave Sinatra a broader canvas on which to work out his rhythmic palate.  That was what he emphasized throughout most of the next decade at Capitol Records.

The problem is that much of this music seeks too much enjoyment in artificially limited aspirations.  In this way, this music includes within its vision contradictions.  Sinatra is sort of the emblem for American exceptionalism.  While, no doubt, Sinatra was an exceptional performer, most of his early recordings projects a sense of limiting the field of view to the point that answers appear just a little too easily.

Into the third disc, there are more showtunes and movie musical fare.  They are especially prevalent on disc four.  These songs have aged the worst.  They neither conjure a bygone era nor really contain the power to impress.

It is with the later recordings of this set — aside from the showtunes — that Sinatra seems to find his best voice.  Even with sub-par material like “American Beauty Rose,” with hackneyed New Orleans second-line brass band flourishes, the recording captures Sinatra’s impeccable sense of vocal timing and his clear-eyed delivery.  He even characteristically summons his deep, booming Jersey accent on the “O” sounds (like in the word “choose”).  It was a vocal affectation nearly as iconic as Buddy Holly‘s vocal hiccup a few years later when rock and roll broke.  “Deep Night”, recorded with Harry James‘ orchestra, with an arrangement by Ray Coniff, points more to what Sinatra would do through the rest of the 1950s.  It is more adult.  There is a jazzy feel, but it doesn’t swing hard.  This is an early peek at the Sinatra of Las Vegas.  It conjures the image of him with a drink on the rocks in his hand, surrounded by “The Clan” (the group’s own name for the Rat Pack).  These recordings lack the depth and pathos of Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958).  And nothing swings as hard and easy at his later collaborations with Nelson Riddle: Swing Easy! (1954), Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (1956), A Swingin’ Affair! (1957), etc.  But the cocksure swagger of the older Sinatra starts to be felt a little more, particularly when his renowned sense of timing blends seamlessly with a cutting sense of dynamics.  It wasn’t just that Sinatra had great rhythmic timing.  He also incorporated dynamics — going between loud and quiet volumes — to soften and smooth his delivery.  This was the secret for swinging hard and easy at the same time.  It was the signature of Sinatra’s singing at its best and most recognizable.  And in the later years he used it in a far more condensed and potent manner.  The earliest songs here find him using it on long, drawn out notes (legato), when he holds a note for a long time (sostenuto).  In the later songs he is using dynamics within short phrases, with dynamic changes happening quickly with each syllable, even without legato phrasing.

In the end, this patchwork collection of Sinatra’s first decade on his own as a recording star is decidedly uneven.  It lacks the kind of memorable songs he would record in the following decade.  Instead, much of this moves at an almost glacial pace to new styles, with handfuls of songs sounding almost indistinguishable from one another at times.  The average listener will find this four-disc collection to be very much overkill.  A far better distillation of only the best material is found on the singe-disc collection Sings His Greatest Hits (1997).

Willie Nelson – To Lefty From Willie

To Lefty From Willie

Willie NelsonTo Lefty From Willie Columbia KC 34695 (1977)

For those who don’t know the story, Willie Nelson got his first big break in Nashville in the early 1960s as a songwriter, penning big hits for Patsy Cline, Faron Young, etc.  He also maintained a career as a solo performer, but with less commercial success.  Labels like RCA signed him more to gain access to his songwriting than for his performing abilities.  After some period of years, he developed associations with New York based record labels, relocated to the Austin, Texas area, and brought together the conservative, redneck country music crowd with the liberal, hippie rock crowd.  He struck gold with The Red Headed Stranger, his first album for Columbia records, in 1975.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Willie’s idea for a follow-up to the smash success of The Red Headed Stranger was to record a tribute album to honky-tonk legend of the early 1950s Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty From Willie.  The record executives in New York City didn’t agree with the choice, and shelved the album.  Willie went back to the studio and recorded the excellent — if under-appreciated — The Sound in Your Mind, which was released in 1976 as the proper follow-up to The Red Headed Stranger.  Columbia also released a gospel album in late 1976 recorded way back in 1973 for Atlantic Records, The Troublemaker.  After editing out a squeaky drum pedal from the recordings, Columbia eventually released To Lefty From Willie in 1977.  Willie sings alright, if not at his best, and his sister Bobbie provides some excellent honky-tonk piano, but it’s hard not to see that the New York executives had a point in balking at the album.  It’s a fairly low energy outing, held back by unambitious performances by the backing band, especially the persistently cartoonish bass of Bee Spears.  This was recorded with Willie’s touring band, who sometimes lacked both musical muscle and finesse.  It’s a fine enough album, in the end, but hardly the best Willie could do at this point in his career.  Choice track: “Railroad Lady.”

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