Thursday, August 24, 2006

HUM 223: Lyrics to "John Henry"

There's kind of a funky little website called A Lebanese Tribute to Bruce Springsteen that I found when I was looking for lyrics to "John Henry" tonight. It looks like a fan's site, and the webmaster - who doesn't give his/her name - says it "is the first and unique Lebanese website dedicated to The BOSS!" and "is now the largest Bruce Springsteen lyrics archive on the Internet." Some of these fansites are great, others are shlock. This one looks like a good one, a labor of love with lots of detail.

(Have you noticed I like detail? I like it in papers, too, BTW.)

Anyway, I found a page with the lyrics to "John Henry," along with some information about the recording sessions for "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and the song itself. It also includes notes about the song by Dave Marsh. I don't find them in my CD, but Marsh is listed as a researcher on the CD's credits. In any event, the notes look accurate to me, and they have some interesting details I hadn't known before.

HUM 223: Springsteen's 'John Henry'

On Friday (or sometime soon) we'll be listening to "John Henry" as performed by Bruce Springsteen and the eclectic group of musicians he brought together to cut his Seeger Sessions CD. We'll probably hear "John Henry" again - it's one of the most important single songs in American music history. For now, I want to concentrate on how a guy named Ed Ward writes about it.

Ward is a rock critic. He coauthored the Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, and he's written for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Creem magazines. He wrote an essay on the Seeger Sessions for WNET-TV, the Public Broadcasting System's flagship station in New York City. Notice how fluently he writes:
How is it that the songs Bruce Springsteen taps into for his latest project are so familiar? From "We Shall Overcome," of the CD's title, to "John Henry," these are from a body of songs that "everybody" of a certain age knew. You might have learned them at school, at camp, in church, or from television. You felt you'd just always known them, even though you had no idea where they came from or who wrote them.

Only much, much later might you have begun analyzing the songs. "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain ..." What is that, anyway? Who is "she"? Why is her arrival so important? Or, speaking of mountains, how about "Big Rock Candy Mountain"? Never mind the fact that rock candy isn't around much these days; all of a sudden it dawns on you that this is a song about hunger, hunger as experienced by people without a home, but yearning for one where there's no effort in obtaining life's basic needs, at last. You've stumbled upon an artifact of America's hobo class, as chronicled by singer Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock -- something that both does and doesn't exist today, a social problem going back to, among other things, the federal government's treatment of Civil War veterans.

Which is just another way of saying that folk music is complicated but easy. Easy to learn, easy to play and sing, but complex in its content when looked at closely.
And notice what he says about "John Henry." It's incisive. It suggests why the song matters, and it gives us something to think about:
And how about "John Henry"? A tune about an African-American martyr to the industrial system -- the giant who beat a steam drill and died from his mighty exertions -- has been sung for years and now will be introduced to a new generation, thanks to Springsteen's decision to include it in his SEEGER SESSIONS CD. Did John Henry exist? Who are the others in the story? And, come to think of it, why is it so much fun to hear about a guy killing himself with overwork?

His legacy doesn't stop there. Examine this song long enough and you realize that John Henry is black and the boss, the guy running the steam drill, is white. Is this one of the reasons that beating the drill is so important -- not just to John Henry but to the song's survival? Obviously, there's something affirming in knowing that the human body, the human spirit, can outdo the machine, but there's something more: behind the jolly tune and its story, this, like many folk songs, is a protest song.
Well, I think "John Henry" is more than just a protest song. I heard a lot of them in the 1960s, and most of them are just as well forgotten. But "John Henry" has been around since the 1800s, and I still admire what it says about the human spirit. The points Ward raises here are worth thinking about. And his writing is certainly worth using as a model for my own. At least trying to.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Willie Nelson, dancing about architecture

HUM 223 students (who will be called upon to write papers about music before the semester is over) take note --

Elvis Costello, an 80s punker who's reinvented himself as kind of an elder statesman of the British rock scene, once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Meaning you can't do it, it's the wrong medium, the wrong art form.

Well, rock critic Bob Gendron came pretty close in today's Chicago Tribune. He was reviewing a Sunday night concert by veteran country artist Willie Nelson at Chicago's Charter One Pavilion. "Playing to a multigenerational crowd that encompassed toddlers and grandmothers, it's easy to see why he lives for live shows," Gendron said. Here's how he described Nelson's singing and playing:
While his bedrock voice is slightly chipped, Nelson remains a skilled practitioner of subtle nuance and casual phrasing. Shading syllables, he brought fresh perspectives to universally recognized lyrics.

Nelson's zesty acoustic guitar playing formed the epicenter of the jazzy interpretations, his worn fingers moving according to feeling instead of note-for-note exactness. "Night Life" flowed like the Rio Grande, snarling as it sonically stretched amid craggy curves and narrow passages. Fluid and improvisational, the needle-and-thread style was reminiscent of Jerry Garcia's latter-era work and provided insight into why Nelson is embraced by jam-band fans.
Great descriptive writing. Architecture that's got a beat you can dance to.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

HUM 223: 'music ... the new cotton'?

Two themes we will be studying in Humanities 223 (ethnic music) are expropriation and commodification of ethnic art forms. Want to know what they can feel like? Read Edmund W. Lewis' editorial column on Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentatary in Louisiana Weekly, an African American newspaper in New Orleans. Lewis isn't complaining about Lee's movie, he's complaining about the way black music is exploited for the tourist dollar. Here's what he says about it:

New Orleans is still a town where the ruling minority gets wealthy off the genius, creativity and labor of people of color while treating tourists of color who come here for events like the Bayou Classic and Essence Music Festival like animals. It's a city whose world-famous hospitality and warmth are seldom extended to the black masses who barely make it in the best of times.

This is a city where it is crystal clear, as some revolutionary poets and others have suggested, that music is the new cotton. While there's an abundance of talent and creativity among the city's musicians of color, most of the money generated by the music goes directly into the pockets of those who own the majority of the city's record labels, music stores, nightclubs and tourist venues. Some of the best talent African America has produced has been reduced by bigotry to sharecroppers by opportunitists.
Music is the new cotton? The reference, of course, is to black slaves picking cotton for the white masters who exploited them.

How true is it? We'll be studying that in HUM 223.

For the record, Lewis liked Spike Lee's "When The Levees Broke" ... as far as it went. Lewis says:
The beauty and resilience of New Orleans shine through the documentary despite the ugly circumstances under which the documentary took place.

There is lots to laugh and cry about in the documentary, as well as ample opportunities for anger.

Watching Condoleeza Rice shop for shoes during this national disaster will certainly do nothing to endear her to people of color or increase her chances of becoming the first female or black president. And President Bush's legacy will always be tainted by his piss-poor response to Hurricane Katrina.

One of the more surprising aspects of the film was the outspokenness of some of the more successful people of color who appeared in the documentary. In New Orleans there is a long, sordid history of privileged people of color doing and saying as little as possible about racial inequity and injustice. Katrina obviously changed that as the haves and have-nothings suffered alongside one another.

Spike Lee did the best he could do. But those who know the history and reality of living in this city know that he didn't bring it the way he could have. It is impossible to understand what happened last August without fully grasping the history of New Orleans.

Then again, the brother only had four hours.
From all the reviews of the movie, including Lewis' in Lousiana Weekly, it's as powerful as "Do the Right Thing" (1989).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Shaggy dog story ...

I can't vouch for the science behind this, but it is nothing if not a shaggy dog story. Michael Heggen of Salem, Ore., who maintains entertaining website called the Heggen Report, defines them like this:
A seemingly plausible (usually) story of varying length (the longer the better, I say). As the story progresses, the listener/reader should become more and more intrigued, even if they know it's a shaggy dog story. The last line is always an absolutely hideous pun.
In what may be a classic example of the genre, Heggen also notes:
The art of creating a well-crafted pun is lost on many people unfortunately, so enjoying a shaggy dog story is sort of like enjoying a cigar -- the person smoking has a great time, but bystanders usually gag.
Anyway, here's the story:
A South Carolina farm wife called the local phone company to
report her telephone failed to ring when her friends
called -- and that on the few occasions when it did ring, her
dog always moaned right before the phone rang.

The telephone repairman proceeded to the scene, curious to see this
psychic dog or senile lady.

Upon arriving at the residence he climbed the utility pole,
plugged in his test set, and dialed the subscriber's
phone number.

The phone didn't ring right away, but then the dog
moaned and then the telephone began to ring.

Climbing down from the pole, the telephone repairman
discovered the following:

1. The dog was tied to the telephone system's ground
wire with a steel chain and collar.

2. The wire connection to the ground rod was loose.

3. The dog was receiving the volts of signaling current
when the number was called.

4. After a couple of jolts, the dog would start moaning and
then urinate.

5. The wet ground would complete the circuit, thus
causing the phone to ring.

Which demonstrates that some problems CAN be fixed by
pissing and moaning.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Pennsylvania scheitholt links

I'm posting this link to the blog because I'll never find it again if I don't. It's to the PDF file of Henry Mercer's paper "The Zithers of the Pennsylvania Germans" in A Collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society, Part 101, Volume V (1923). It's in the PA's Past Digital Bookshelf at Penn State.

The scheitholt, which Mercer's informants called a "zitter," is of course the direct antecedent of the Appalachian dulcimer. It was carried down into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where it got over into Scots-Irish culture and got to be known as the "dulcimore."

But, as I learned googling around this morning, the instrument may have been called that earlier.

An 18th-century "dulcimar" in Pennsylvania? While I was looking for a post to the Everything Dulcimer discussion group that mentioned the Mercer scheitholts, I googled instead onto this post by Greg Gunner of Riga, Mich., that cites a "dulcimar" in an 18th-century probate record in southeastern Pennsylvania. He writes:
In her master's thesis on the origins of the zither, Alissa Ann Teresa Pesavento quotes from a copy of the 1757 estate inventory of an early Mennonite settler in southeast Pennsylvania. The settler, Henry Ruth, emigrated to Pennsylvania before 1720. His estate inventory clearly lists a "dulcimar" among the items of his estate. According to histories of the area both Henry Ruth and a neighbor, John Clemens, were known to play the zither. The zither of the southeast Pennsylvania Dutch Country is none other than the scheitholt, which is thought by most experts to be at least one of the direct ancestors of the mountain dulcimer. To verify Ms. Pesavento's claim I contacted the Mennonite Meeting House in Bucks County and obtained a copy of Henry Ruth's estate inventory. The "dulcimar" is clearly listed as part of his estate.
Fascinating. Pretty convincing, too.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Early dulcimer brought to Illinois

Here's more on an antique dulcimer that was brought from West Virginia dulcimer to Illinois in the early 20th century. I mentioned it and posted a picture to this blog on March 7, quoting an email I received in 2002 from Les Williams of Orlando, Fla., who grew up in Hamilton, Ill. It has the general appearance of a Charles Prichard instrument, and the Williams family dates it to 1902. Now I've located a copy of another email from Williams, dated July 21, 2003, giving more details about the instrument and how his grandmother played it in response to my questions. He wrote:
She double picked, usually with a turkey/goose quill, and sang s well. My Grandfather played the dulcimer also but he only picked in one direction. I have seen him play it. My Grandmother also played the banjo but I am unaware of which kind, a plectrum or tenor. I do recall asking Mom about the violin peg, peghead and the fact that it slips from time to time. She said that Grandmother would have that happen, she would laugh, retune and continue! She did use a noter, most often a kitchen match since that was usually most handy. I asked if she had chorded as we do now and Mom said she had never heard/seen her use anything but a noter. The noter has been lost in antiquity.
In an earlier email, I had asked Williams if he had seen one of Prichard's labels, and he said "there was nothing in the sound box to indicate the builder." He added:
The only thing unusual on this dulcimer, that I could detect, there were/are two small "T" units that were mortised together and then the top of the "T" was glued into the fretboard/sound board at the beghead end of the sound holes, and also at the picking hollow sound holes. This seemed unusual to me, as I have been studying some luthier methods for building dulcimers and there is NO mention of that sort of addition. The only string instrument that I can recall of having such an addition is the violin.
The Williams family hailed from eastern West Virginia, near Renick.