Such a shame; earlier this week on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, folk-icon Richie Havens died of a heart attack. He was 72. Born on Jan. 21, 1941, and raised in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, Havens was something of an autodidactic after dropping out of high school and went on to become one of the most celebrated performers, as well as a champion for Human Rights and environmental issues. “In the mid-1970s he founded TheNorthwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx. He later created The Natural Guard, an environmental organization for children, to use hands-on methods to teach about the environment” (Martin, 2013).
More than anything, Havens was a gentle soul who championed a sense of community, amongst each other and with the planet. “I’m not in show business,” Havens once said, “I’m in the communications business” (Martin, 2013). Speaking in 1999 of the influence music exerted over his childhood, Havens had this to say:
My father was an ear piano player; he could just hear
something and play it. I came up in Brooklyn singing
doo-wop music from the time I was 13 to the time I was
20. That music served a purpose of keeping a lot of people
out of trouble, and also it was a passport from one
neighborhood to another (Roeser, 2013).
Havens with “Paul” of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
When Havens emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid-sixties he had something different to offer, and more than simply because he was a tall (six-and-a-half feet) black man in a predominately white scene. Havens quickly distinguished himself with the profound, emotional sincerity he brought to each composition, regardless if he was the composer or not. In fact he was a masterful interpreter of others’ songs, inhabiting them as if they were his own home. With a sturdy holler of a voice that sounds to be some viscous concoction of sweet molasses, gravel, sawdust, and hot ash, all bellowed up from massive lungs of smoked oak, Havens would accompany himself by seemingly flailing his big hands in a highly rhythmic pattern across the open tunings of his acoustic guitar. He always seemed tender without appearing frail, wise without being pedantic. His performances were welcoming, like a smile.
Around 1965, Havens recorded Henry Glover’s blues classic “Drown in My Own Tears” (made famous by Ray Charles in 1956 when it became his third number-one single on the Billboard R&B singles chart). Although it would not be released until 1968 after he had received a certain degree of fame, this recording perfectly demonstrates the expressive command and integrity a young and unknown Havens could bring to anothers material.
Havens eventually began to make his presence known through his commitment to performing. As he later recalled of these years, “we played three coffeehouses a night, 14 sets a night, 20-minute sets, pass the basket, stay alive. I was there seven and a half years, every day. It was the most incredibly magic, magic time” (Roeser, 2013). Soon, Havens would catch both the ears and eyes of the reigning king of the scene (if not The Sixties in general), Bob Dylan. As Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, “One singer I crossed paths with a lot, Richie Havens, always had a nice-looking girl with him who passed the hat and I noticed that he always did well.” After signing with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, in 1967 Havens released his breakthrough LP, Mixed Bag. It would feature tracks such as a cover of The Fugs song, “Morning, Morning,” written by that group’s Naphtali “Tuli” Kupferberg; Jerry Merrick’s epic “Follow;” and a song that Havens co-wrote with Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., “Handsome Johnny,” which you can check out below.
Mixed Bag also features a tender rendition of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” with which, utilizing an honest, sonorous rasp, Havens cuts deep to the song’s essential wistful melody and hungry rhythmic core:
In May of 1969 Havens would release the impressive double album, Richard P. Havens, 1983, which features a combination of studio recordings and material recorded live in concert, in July of 1968. Other than its inspired interpretations of tunes by The Beatles, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, the LP features a lunge into new sonic territories with such originals as “Indian Rope Man,” “Just Above My Hobby Horse’s Head,” and a Hindu-heavy song whose title perfectly captures the ethos of Havens’ life, “Putting out the Vibration, and Hoping It Comes Home.” The frenetic, psychedelic fuzz & stomp of “Stop Pulling and Pushing Me” was released as a single in July of that year.
This single was split with a live performance of Havens’ tackling The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.” Here, scuffing the song’s pretty veneer as he rides every hop-along and bumbling curve of Paul McCartney’s tune at a frantic clip, Havens makes it seem as if this were one of the most important song ever written.
Beginning a few minutes after 5 p.m. on Friday, August 15 of 1969, Havens would have his career defining moment when, as scheduled act Sweetwater were stuck in traffic, he was asked to open the Woodstock Festival instead. Originally intending to play only four songs, the next few acts were all running late so he was implored to play on. Eventually, well into what would end up being a two-hour set, Havens ran out of material. “I sang every song I knew, and when they asked me to go back on one more time, I improvised ‘Freedom,’” Havens told CNN in 2009. “When you see me in the movie tuning my guitar and strumming, I was actually trying to figure out what else I could possibly play! I looked out at all of those faces in front of me and the word ‘freedom’ came to mind.” Backed by a second guitarist and conga player (his bass player too was stuck in traffic), in an urgent, cyclic growl Havens began to chant that word—Freedom—over and over again as the impassioned strum of his acoustic guitar surged over the crowd. Without even the slightest dip in intensity he let this mantra slip into the familiar lines of gospel pathos from “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It’s hypnotic and earnest; it makes you feel. “My fondest memory was realizing that I was seeing something I never thought I’d ever see in my lifetime—an assemblage of such numbers of people who had the same spirit and consciousness,” he would recall (Browne, 2013). This summer, his family and estate plan to spread his ashes across the field in Bethel, Sullivan County, where the Woodstock festival was held.
I was fortunate enough to see Richie Havens perform live in the summer of 2007. On a clear blue day at the tail end of July we sat in a large swathe of sunlight and green grass on Governors Island. With its rolling green fields and old forts of red sandstone set in the Upper New York Bay, roughly one-half mile from the southern tip of Manhattan Island and barely separated from Brooklyn by Buttermilk Channel, Governors Island is one of those rare, remote places in New York City where you can completely forget where you are. This sort of easy-going slip between the quotidian and the metropolitan was only heightened by Havens’ performance that day.
Although his torso was draped in a dashiki of blue and white it did little to hide his striking height. With his colossal hands bedecked by thick rings of turquoise and silver and with his long grey tufts of a beard, Havens appeared as if he were some sort of shaman. However, any imposing sensations his figure might have created were immediately brought to ground when he shared that kind smile and began to play.
It was as if the world’s grandfather had entered into the comfort of your living room to entertain you personally with some songs and some wisdom, but most of all, he wanted you to feel good. Havens seems to be an artist who has always understood the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience, and how healthy it can be for all when approached with the right attitude. His voice and presence seemed like an aged structure of durable lumber, perhaps it revealed where it had grown worn and weathered through the years, and yet you felt secure within it.
One of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced at a concert occurred when Havens began to play the song he was prominently featured for in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ stunningly ambitious and multifaceted “bio-pic”: Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.”
Havens as “Old Man Arvin” alongside actor Marcus Carl Franklin who portrays 11-year old hobo and troubadour “Woody” in 2007’s I’m Not There.
Havens takes this whirl of surreal blues and just lets it roll for every ounce of caustic fun it has to give. As he began to strum the opening riff, the lovely Joan Baez—who, despite her long dark hair being now silver and cropped short, I spotted seated on a blanket beside us—kicked off her shoes and began to passionately dance barefoot in the grass to this tune by her old childhood sweetheart. It really was quite something to see, but when you hear Havens’ rendition, it is easy to understand what took hold of her:
I’d like to send Richie Havens off with what has always been one of my favorite performances by him: his beautiful rendition of the “sacred and profane” (Friedwald, 2006) tune by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.—“God Bless the Child.” Released in 1972 on his live LP On Stage, this performance, to me, is just breathtaking.
“I’m going straight into what I’m doing. The direction for my music is heaven, of course. We gear all things to the realm of heaven – which is the mind, the organized mind. Everything I want to do, and to accomplish is on the other side of the universe. That’s peace of mind, energy, freedom. And I’m making myself ready to go, joyfully and willingly. I think I’m ready to be everybody’s friend, and to do anything for anybody. It’s heavy”—Richie Havens (Glazier, 1968).
A real fun book about a real crafty turkey named Pete that I read to the kindergarteners the other day; written by Teresa Bateman and illustrated by Jeff Shelly.
Hello all, and Happy Thanksgiving! I’ve been too preoccupied with other projects and responsibilities to devote much time to these pages as of late, however, I wanted to pop in today to try and sweeten up our modern slant on a harvest feast with some thematically appropriate sounds. This holiday, as we Americans have come to celebrate it, has been an official tradition since 1863, when, in the midst of the divisive horrors of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln responded to a 74-year-old magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who urged the president in a letter dated September 28, 1863, to unite the states through custom by having the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the following proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward:
Detail from “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation” by Francis Bicknell Carpenter shows President Abraham Lincoln seated at left and Secretary of State William Seward seated at right.
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
Nearly eighty years later, On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday.
Otis with the Johnny Otis Orchestra in 1957. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).
Now with that little history lesson out of the way, I’d like to first present to you The Robins backed by the exceptional Johnny Otis (“the blackest white man in America”) and his Johnny Otis Orchestra, who in 1950 laid down these swinging rhythm and blues instructions to dance the “Turkey Hop.”
Eddie Jefferson playing at Half Moon Bay California, October 10, 1978 (Photo by Brian McMillen).
From Turkey to Thanks, up next is Eddie Jefferson, the innovator of Vocalese: a style of jazz singing wherein words are sung to melodies that were originally part of an instrumental composition or improvisation; basically, it’s like scat singing with a lexicon. Tragically, while exiting Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on May 8, 1979 at approximately 1:35 a.m, Eddie Jefferson was shot and killed by a disgruntled dancer who once worked for him. Jefferson was 60-years-old. However, a few years prior in 1974, Jefferson released the album Things Are Getting Better, which featured a freewheeling and funky rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” Here in this song, Stone gives thanks for perhaps the greatest gift one can receive, being permitted to just be who you are.
Billy Mitchell – Flute, Clarinet (Bass), Sax (Tenor)
Joe Newman – Trumpet
Mickey Tucker – Organ, Piano, Piano (Electric), Saw
Conrad Buckman – Vocals
Eddie Gladden – Drums
Mildred Weston – Vocals
—Alright, I’ve given you the gravy, and now it’s time for some dry turkey meat—
First published in the 1989 chapbook Tornado Alley, “Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1986” features William S. Burroughs giving thanks as only he could. Two years later, director Gus Van Sant created this short film of Burroughs reading the poem over a montage.
For John Dillinger
In hope he is still alive
“Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986″
Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts
Thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison
Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger
Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin, leaving the carcass to rot
Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes
Thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through
Thanks for the KKK, for nigger-killing lawmen feeling their notches, for decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces
Thanks for Kill a Queer for Christ stickers
Thanks for laboratory AIDS
Thanks for Prohibition and the War Against Drugs
Thanks for a country where nobody is allowed to mind his own business
Thanks for a nation of finks—yes,
Thanks for all the memories all right, lets see your arms
You always were a headache and you always were a bore
Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.
Now, as a bit of a palette cleanse, I’d like to conclude with what was a radio-wave tradition in my youth and what must be the most epic of Thanksgiving songs, a twenty-year-old Arlo Guthrie’s hilarious and poignant true story, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” With a runtime of 18 minutes and 34 seconds, this song served as the opening track (and took up the entire A-side) of Guthrie’s 1967 debut album, Alice’s Restaurant, which later inspired an amusing and underrated 1969 movie of the same name co-written and directed by Arthur Penn.
Yet, before I leave you with the song I’d like to say that we need to remember—to paraphrase colonist William Bradford’s words of 1621, in “Of Plymouth Plantation”—Thanksgiving is the time for the people to “fit up their houses and dwellings against winter,” and to celebrate both “being all well recovered in health and strength.” and having “all things in good plenty.” However, more importantly, if you find yourself fit up and with all things in good plenty, Thanksgiving should serve as a reminder of a fundamental principle for humanity, perhaps best expressed as a succinct maxim in Bob Dylan’s 1967 song “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”:
If asked what it is about Bob Dylan’s art that makes me so obsessed I would surely reply something to the effect of—with my love and fascination for both the poetic malleability of the English language and that strange alchemy in which an artist shapes the air to create sound, and in turn grants these sounds form and meaning through arrangement, thus the creation of music, of song—one cannot help but be enraptured by a genius of this craft. However, my passion for Dylan’s work goes far beyond being marveled by one’s skill at a particular task. It is as if the man can interpret what happens to vibrate within my heart, mind, and spirit at any given moment. I am not speaking of any concrete definition for a certain set of an assortment of agreed upon symbols; I am not speaking of no more than what words mean and the specific tale they tell in any individual song. What I am trying to convey is beyond that, or perhaps beneath. It is a matter of timbre and tone, of phrasing, color, nuance, and sentiment; and, as expressed by the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, it is a matter of the “innuendo under the skin of language” (2012).
This is no claim that this man has endeavored to write a fact-checked biography of my emotional state or inner-life. What I speak of is a mystery. To appropriate an idea by the artist and scientist Bern Porter—it is the harmonious mystery of what occurs when plasma encounters plasma:
One of Bern Porter’s “Founds”
“Your plasma has your name and its up to you to fulfill your
name. And however you may feel, doubt or question whether
you’re negative or positive, you must believe in yourself. I have
this, it is mine, it was given to me, I believe in it, however many
flaws, however many errors, however many wrong decisions,
however many negatives, I have this, I am positive about it. I
will radiate it and if there’s someone who receives, fine, they are
radiating, let us hope their radiation corresponds with mine
—Bern Porter (Melnicove, 2009).
With Dylan, it is the obvious precision and concentration that his songs must demand of their creator, but it is also so much more than that. With Dylan, it is performance. To paraphrase something he once stated in an interview a long time ago, he is both a song and a dance man. And as it should be with all great music, these things speak to me—of me.
As I find myself unable to articulate with pinpoint precision all that I am trying to communicate, I’ll recede behind the two long quotations that follow. I know that the crux of what I am getting at dwells somewhere within (and is waiting to be extracted, by a mind more incisive than mine certainly, to be served up as an elucidating parallel) these passages from the first segment of Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past—1913’s Swann’s Way:
Presumably the notes which we hear at such moments tend
to spread out before our eyes, over surfaces greater or smaller
according to their pitch and volume; to trace arabesque designs,
to give us the sensation of breath or tenuity, stability or caprice.
But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations
have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those
which the following, or even simultaneous notes have already
begun to awaken in us. And this indefinite perception would
continue to smother in its molten liquidity the motifs which
now and then emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and
disappear and drown; recognized only by the particular kind of
pleasure which they instill, impossible to describe, to recollect,
to name; ineffable;[…].
[…] the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven
notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still, almost all of it, unknown),
on which, here and there only, separated by the gross darkness of its
unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys, keys of tenderness,
of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from
all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by
certain great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion
corresponding to the theme which they have found, of showing us what richness,
what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that great black impenetrable night,
discouraging exploration, of our soul, which we have been content to regard as
valueless and waste and void.
Mural on Kenmare Street, NYC by CNNCTD+.
“Blood Tempest” by Charlie Forrester of Freehands Creations, inspired by the “rich [...] thematic imagery and symbolism” of Dylan’s latest LP.
On Bob Dylan’s brilliant new studio album (and 35th overall), Tempest, there is a little gem of a lament titled, “Long and Wasted Years.” I write “little” as on an album comprised of songs that generally run near the six-minute mark or more, with it’s run-time of three minutes and forty-seven seconds, “Long and Wasted Years” is one of the more concise offerings to be found. As with the majority of these new Dylan compositions, this is a meticulously crafted song that utilizes melodic repetition to create both momentum and tension. As there is no chorus or refrain, in this instance he employs a descending guitar riff that chimes out mournfully through each verse.
This song resides in that soft but certain territory beyond love and beyond hate. There are no good-guys or bad-guys, no exact right or wrong. There is no victor here spitting insults, only two incompatible losers not only stuck with regret and heartache, but also seemingly still stuck together. Featuring refined, forlorn phrasing and enunciation that skillfully convey the restrained anger and impotent sorrow (or, interchangeably, restrained sorrow and impotent anger) of a wounded marriage, it is not hard to imagine this song sequenced on his masterpiece of hurt feelings from 1975, Blood On The Tracks. In fact, this song fades in mid-riff as if this melancholy litany has been going on for quite some time now—far too long actually—until it all abruptly ends as Dylan arrives at the title with the lines: “So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.” Honest in its inability to point a finger directly at one or the other, this song perfectly captures the perplexing truth that with love-gone-wrong there is room for remorse without the definitive weight of guilt.
On his album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, released in January of 1964, a twenty-two-year-old Dylan sang, “You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine/We’re both just one too many mornings, An’ a thousand miles behind.” Here, in “Long and Wasted Years” we receive a similar lament from a man who can not only still empathize with the complexities of romantic relationships and matters of the heart, but give them voice as well. Albeit, now it arrives void of the wounded vanity of a romantic young man, but with the sullen comprehension that seeps in with maturity: Sour hearts and sorrow do not need culprits, only victims. Another major distinction from the younger man’s work is here there is no sense of theatrical finality. His use early on of the open-ended word Maybe, seems to permeate throughout the entire song’s atmosphere.
“Is there a place we can go, is there anybody we can see?
It’s the same for you as it is for me?”
I write “open-ended” to not only signify the ambiguous nature of the word itself, but for the questions the word’s placement in the lyric leaves unanswered: Does it belong to the anterior statement, the line that follows, or maybe both?
In fact, it is this Maybe that serves as an engine, not only for this tune’s lyrics, but as what has driven this couple through these long years.
A still from the music video for Tempest’s opening track, “Duquesne Whistle.”
Now, I could have employed the rambling preamble above for any number of Dylan’s compositions, but today it’s like this:
Wheat Field with Crows: Painted in July 1890, this work is one of the two debated to be Vincent van Gogh’s final painting. Regardless, this dramatically lonesome landscape would have been one of the last things seen by the painter other than the immediate surroundings of his deathbed.
One hundred and twenty-two years ago today, on July 28th, 1890, in Auvers, France, the outstanding but wholly dismissed artist Vincent van Gogh lay prostrate on the precarious balance between life and death. The day prior he had walked alone into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He would spend the next day lying in bed smoking a pipe before finally, on July 29th, succumbing to an infection in the wound. He was 37 years old and had sold only one painting during his lifetime (Sherwood, 2006). Attended to by his brother Theo, his last words were reported to be, “The sadness will last forever” (Sweetman, 1990).
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Self-Portrait 1889. Paris. Musée d’Orsay.
In memoriam to this brilliant artist, I present to you today an unfinished work by another. Captured on tape by biographer Robert Shelton in a Denver hotel room on March 13, 1966—just three days after the final sessions for Blonde On Blonde—this “sketch” by Bob Dylan would come to acquire several names over the years, given by various bootleggers and fans: “Definitely Van Gogh;” “Positively Van Gogh;” and “Spuriously Seventeen Windows (The Painting By Van Gogh).” After this date, Dylan would go on to complete his European tour in a blur of inspiration and stimulants before entering a reclusive period on July 29, 1966, when he crashed his 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle on a road near his home in Woodstock, New York. The extents of his injuries from this accident were never fully disclosed, however, Dylan claimed that he broke several vertebrae in his neck. As for why he never returned to this composition—the narrative of which had the potential to develop into something with a grandeur to rival his “Visions of Johanna”—Dylan had told the press at the time: “The songs I don’t publish, I usually do forget…I have to start over all the time. I can’t really keep notes or anything like that” (Heylin, 2009).
Tree Roots: An intense vision cut off sharply, this turbulent tangle of dense paint applied by fevered brushstrokes is the other of the two works disputed to be Van Gogh’s “final painting.”
But then she’d press and I’d say, “You see that painting?
Do you think it’s been done by Van Gogh?”
The cook she said call her Maria
She’d always point for the same boy to come forth
Saying, “He trades cattle, it’s his own idea
And he also makes trips to the North
Have you ever seen his naked calf bleed?”
I’d say, “Oh no, why, does it show?”
Then she’d whisper in my ear that he’s a half-breed
And I’d say, “Fine, but can he paint like Van Gogh?”
I can’t remember his name he never gave it
But I always figured he could go home
‘Til when he gave me his card and said, “Save it”
I could see by his eyes he was alone
But it was sad how his four leaf clover
Drawn on his calling card showed
That it was given back to him a-many times over
And it most definitely was not done by Van Gogh.
It was either she or the maid just to please me
Though I sensed she could not understand
And she made a thing out of it by saying, “Go easy
He’s a straight, but he’s a very crooked straight man.”
And I’d say, “Does the girl in the calendar doubt it?
And by the way is it Marilyn Monroe?”
But she’d just get salty and say, “Why you wanna know about it?”
And I’d say, “I was just wondering if she ever sat for Van Gogh.”
[from here the recording becomes too damaged, and is not worth listening to]
It was either her or the straight man who introduced me
To Jeanette, Camilla’s friend
Who later on falsely accused me
Of stealing her locket and pen
When I said “I don’t have the locket”
She said “You steal pictures of everybody’s mother I know”
And I said “There’s no locket
No picture of any mother I would pocket
Unless it’s been done by Van Gogh.”
Camilla’s house stood on the outskirts
How strange to see the chandeliers destroyed…
Bob Dylan, “Paranoid” Birmingham, England, 1966 by Barry Feinstein.
Heylin, C. (2009). Revolution In The Air: The Songs Of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Sherwood, K. (2006). van Gogh, Vincent (1853–1890). Encyclopedia of Disability. Ed. Gary L. Albrecht. Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference. Retrieved July 29, 2012 from Gale Virtual Reference Library
Sweetman, D. (1990). Van Gogh: His Life and His Art. New York: Crown Publishers.
I’m gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey—I’ll die before I turn senile
“Cry A While” by Bob Dylan (2001)
71 years ago today, on May 24th 1941, at 9:05pm in St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, Robert Allen (Shabati Zisel ben Avraham) Zimmerman was born. He would grow up to be the greatest songwriter who’s ever lived, and the most influential song-and-dance man of his generation.
Those who know me know that I could speak about Dylan for five days straight until I die of thirst, so I’ll try to keep this brief.
The best summation of the man’s career is the one he uses himself as an introduction at his concerts. Hearing it for the first time at a Minor League Baseball Stadium in upstate New York, I could not help but laugh at the accuracy of the statement, despite its over-simplification and self-deprecation. Adapted from an article by Jeff Miers that had appeared in a local newspaper, The Buffalo News, the house-announcer’s clear, showman voice boomed over the loudspeakers with the words:
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the ’80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late ’90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!
Blowin’ out the candles on his 25th birthday back in ’66
Other than reaching this milestone of 71, 2012 seems to be turning out to be an exciting year for the man who once went by the moniker of Blind Boy Grunt: Next Tuesday at the White House he (along with the likes of Toni Morrison, John Glenn, and Madeleine Albright) will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom; he’s currently recording a follow-up to 2009’s Together Through Life, which likewise features Los Lobos’ multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo; and he’ll be continuing his Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988 and has seen the man performing roughly one-hundred concerts throughout the globe a year.
I SAID ONE-HUNDRED CONCERTS A YEAR!
Who would’ve thought in 1966 that this amphetamine wreck …
…would not only still be around as a septuagenarian, but still performing regularly?
Live at Workers’ Stadium in Beijing. Photograph by Liang Shuang
I can’t even think of any acts comprised of kids in their twenties that keep that kind of performance pace.
On January 12, Dylan started off the year by paying tribute to Martin Scorsese at the Critics’ Choice Awards, performing his relatively obscure but haunting masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell.” His weathered voice now cracked and split like an old leather suitcase that’s been dragged through the dust of the world, I just love the way he pulls and tears at its edges to bend out new sounds from of a voice that had already seemed to belong to an old man back on his debut album of 1962.
Originally recorded on May 15, 1983 for the Mark Knopfler Produced Infidels, Dylan inexplicably decided to discard the song and leave one of his finest compositions in years off the album.
Slowly, you receive the song as if it were the torn journal entries of a weary witness, a ghost gone passive before all the horrors, transgressions, and failure in a debased world cut off from God in his heaven. The song “turns all the old, sainted rebels and victims parading across Dylan’s whole songbook to dust, then blows them away”(Marcus, 1991). Caught within that dust we gain a taste of our great nation’s squalid and bloody history, and just as the narrator is, we are ensnared—immobile. The lyrics make you “put your hands into a wound that will never be closed” (Marcus, 1991). And it seems that for this man, this specter who’s “gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel”—it seems that the only thing on this world that can make him feel anything is the sound of blues singer Blind Willie Mctell.
Despite the fact that this song has come to be recognized as one of Dylan’s finest, it seems he never considered it more than a sketch: “So many songs that people elevate on such a high level were in some sense only first drafts. […It] was never fully developed; I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record” (Heylin, 2010). At another point he was quoted as saying: “I didn’t think I recorded it right” (Heylin, 2010). It seems we disagree.
I’ve been privileged enough to see Dylan live 4 times in my life, even once hearing him perform this rarity; and I certainly plan on catching him the next time he and his top-notch band roll through town.
Well, here’s to you Bobby; your art has definitely helped make this world an interesting place, and has helped many to understand it. Happy Birthday!
Portrait of Bob Dylan by Edward Kinsella on display at the current “Illustrators 54 Sequential, Moving Image, & Uncommissioned” show at The Society of Illustrators in New York City
Dylan, B. (1983). Blind Willie Mctell [recorded by Bob Dylan] On The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare And Unreleased) 1961-1991 [CD] Sony. (1997)
Heylin, C. (2010). Still On The Road. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Marcus G. (1991). Real Life Rock Top 10. Artforum.
Marcus G. (1991). Dylan As Historian. San Francisco Focus.
…And we’re back! Due to moving into a new apartment and a mass amount of work to be done towards obtaining a Master’s Degree (and various other complexities and duties that all fall under the general rubric of that’s life) I simply have not been able to do what I wanted for this blog over the past month. However, I return today (most likely only to disappear again…at least for a little while) to pay my respects with a small tribute to Levon Helm, who passed away last Thursday on April 19, 2012, at 1:30 pm at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He was 71 years old.
Levon is perhaps best remembered for his distinctive drumming—that flesh-and-blood shuffle, the thick sod of his backbeat—as a member the outstanding group known simply as The Band, but he also contributed lead vocals (as well as mandolin and other string instruments) for some of their most memorable songs, such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Jim James, talented lead singer for Louisville, Kentucky-based rock band My Morning Jacket had this to say about Levon’s singing back in 2008 for a piece in Rolling Stone Magazine:
“There is something about Levon Helm’s voice that is contained in all of our voices. It is ageless, timeless and has no race. He can sing with such depth and emotion, but he can also convey a good-old funtime growl. […] There is a sense of deep country and family in Levon’s voice, a spirit that was there even before him, deep in the blood of all singers who have heard him, whether they know it or not.”
Raised on a cotton farm in Marvell, Arkansas, Levon Helm hooked up with another Arkansas native, hot-blooded rockabilly singer “Mr. Dynamo” Ronnie Hawkins, who took the teenage Levon on tour in Canada to play drums for his band The Hawks.
Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, ca. 1959. Ronnie Hawkins, vocal, Jimmy Ray Paulman, guitar, Levon Helm, drums, and Willard Jones, piano
They soon had a hit with the song “Forty Days,” an appropriated spin on Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days”:
Touring and promoting this hit, Levon stated that they played “places so tough, they make you puke twice and show your razor before they let you in the door” (Scott, 2000). While up in Toronto, Hawkins and Levon recruited the best sidemen they could find, sidemen who would eventually form the nucleus of The Band: Garth Hudson; Richard Manuel; Robbie Robertson; and Rick Danko. A few years later in the late summer of 1965, as The Hawks developed through a grueling tour schedule into a precision outfit with a psychic-like level of musical communication when on stage, Bob Dylan was looking for a backup band for his first U.S. “electric” tour and ended up recruiting this group, which would soon be known by the succinct moniker of The Band. (As a small aside, it should be noted that Hawkins, among many other achievements, went on to perform at the 1992 inaugural party for President Bill Clinton–him being a huge fan of The Hawks–and Hawkins has also performed for every Canadian prime minister since John Diefenbaker).
Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, and Levon Helm, 1965.
On October 5th, during Dylan’s extensive tours of 1965, Dylan took Levon and the rest of The Hawks into Colombia’s Studio A at 799 Seventh Avenue in New York, and attempted to flesh out several song-sketches that he had accrued in the two months since he was last in a studio. The majority of the “songs” from this session, such “Jet Pilot” and “Medicine Sunday” would remain little more than fragments, but they were able to record a complete take of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” a song Dylan had previously tried to record with little success during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions back in July. The version recorded with The Hawk’s was subsequently released as a single on December 21 of that year.
Other than some particularly clever and corrosive lyrics, in my opinion “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is a less than stellar composition by Dylan, and it failed to replicate the success of Dylan’s previous two singles (although interestingly enough, with the prior two singles being “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street,” this song could be seen to complete a trilogy of vicious songs, all full of admonitory barbs delivered by a resolute tongue through a bitter sneer; or something to that effect). Although I do think the band play the hell out of it despite its shortcomings, apparently Phil Ochs and I shared the opinion that “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” is not among Dylan’s best work from this period: Dylan played him the song when the two were riding in a limousine, and when Ochs expressed a lukewarm feeling about the song, he was kicked out of the car while Dylan yelled, “You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist” (Schumacher, 1996). Again, in my opinion, with its mid-period Dylan sense of absurd wordplay written in a fevered minute and its mercurial whirl of all-around amphetamine fun, the standout recording from this particular session is the much more enjoyable, quasi-parody of the Beatles: “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
Eventually the tour with Dylan (and the vitriolic responses his electric performances provoked from the audience) took their toll and Helm left to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, Helm returned in time to participate in one of the most prolific periods for both Dylan and The Band: the informal recording sessions conducted while convalescing in the seclusion of the Woodstock area of New York during the latter half of 1967 and early 1968, which resulted in both what is known as The Basement Tapes as well as The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. Just one of the numerous songs recorded at these sessions that concern themselves with “carnal bewilderment and helpless delight” (Marcus, 1975) is the rambunctious swagger that is the Levon Helm sung “Don’t Ya Tell Henry.”
For a year The Hawks had shown Dylan how to cut loose and rock out on stage; now, down in that basement in upstate New York the members of The Band received a one-of-a-kind education in music history and song craft from Dylan, just as they had once learned from Ronnie Hawkins, and soon they were applying this knowledge in creating a unique rustic sound that seemingly had antecedents so familiar, and yet what was produced was some strange, new thing; certainly much stranger than the psychedelic pop that had become the latest fashion.
At their best, these five guys could create a swirl of sound as if you were dancing drunk and sweaty atop an organ filled with dust, or they could communicate a shiver like fever in the marrow; either way they could make you feel something. For a band so rooted and adept within the entire spectrum of American music, it amazes me that Levon Helm was the only member to actually have been born and raised within this nation. It seems that because of that very fact exactly Helm was chosen to sing lead for one of my favorite The Band tunes: the bizarre tale of finding pleasure during desperate times that is the Music from Big Pink outtake: “Yazoo Street Scandal.”
Yazoo Street Scandal by The Band (lyrics by Robbie Robertson)
Stranded out in the night,
Eliza took me down
To see the widow give
Rain to the town.
It’s against the law
To be a tonic man,
But the widow knows
She’s got the upper hand.
So I went on in
Feelin’ kinda wheezy.
You know she soothed my mind, boys,
She rocked me kinda slow and easy
All day and all night.
Pick a card before you go
It’s a long trip to Mexico.
Eliza wait by the door,
I can’t stay here anymore, no, no.
Then she took a pill
She washed her feet in the mud
She said “Look out son,
You know, I just ordered a flood
For forty days and forty nights.”
Then I dropped my shoes,
Eliza called my name.
She said it looked to her
Like it’s gonna rain.
Then the cotton king
Came in chokin’
And the widow laughed and said:
“I ain’t jokin’.
Take once for all”
She said “Now don’t ya tease me.
I just fell in love, boy,
So rock me kinda slow and kinda easy,
All day and all night.”
Sweet William said
With a drunken head:
“If I had a boat,
I’d help y’all float.”
Eliza stood there watching,
William in a trance,
As the widow did the St. Vitus dance.
But just then an old man
With a boat named “Breezy”
Said: “You can ride with Clyde, boys,
If you rock it kinda slow and easy,
All day and all night.”
Robbie Robertson—The Band’s guitarist, and principal author for this song—once stated that it was based on an actual Yazoo Street in a town in Helm’s home state of Arkansas: “I thought, ‘Wow, they don’t have streets like that in Canada. There’s no streets up there called Yazoo!’ It was like, ‘Jesus, let me make up a little story here about stuff going on in this kind of almost red light district.’ Everything was lit in red in that song for me.” Because the song was set in the South, Robertson decided that Levon Helm would be a more appropriate singer, employing his “best redneck-wildcat yelp” (Hoskyns, 1993).
Levon Helm in 1968. (Photograph: Elliott Landy/Redferns)
“Yazoo Street Scandal” remains perhaps my favorite of Levon Helm sung tracks by The Band. Not because I believe it to be the “best” by any means, in terms of performance, sentiment, or composition, but simply because it’s so much damn fun to listen to. Fun being roughly 50% of what The Band’s music is about for me; the other percentage chiefly concerns empathy.
After The Band dissolved, Helm dabbled in acting, most notably playing Loretta Lynn’s father in the 1980 American biographical film Coal Miner’s Daughter. Later on in life Helm released the acclaimed solo albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, and hosted the “Midnight Ramble,” a regular concert series featuring numerous guest performers at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. This is something I’ve always intended to attend but never got around to justifying the time or the money for. Now I regret that.
But to bid an appropriate farewell for Levon Helm, I have chosen to conclude with The Band’s Martin Scorsese documented farewell concert of November of 1976, The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz
At this show not only did they get to play alongside both their influences and those they influenced themselves, but they were reunited with their former mentors.
and later with Bob Dylan, who had just completed the second leg of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour at the end of that May.
Dylan backstage at The Last Waltz, 1976
One of the most gratifying moments of Dylan’s performance that evening was when The Band assisted him through an impassioned, yet immediate rendition of “Forever Young,” a song that they had all recorded together back in May of 1973 for Dylan’s Planet Waves. This sort of emotional transmission is what The Band could do best:
The Band and friends perform in The Last Waltz (left to right: Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, and Robbie Robertson); credit: Neal Preston/Corbis
However, always a personal highlight for me was to watch Levon, along with the rest of The Band, perform with The Staple Singers (being perhaps the most direct influence on The Band’s approach to vocals—the chain reaction of each voice coming in as a separate layer and playing its own unique part, as opposed to the popular method of multiple voices attempting to reach a harmonious and simultaneous neutral). So here it is:
REST IN PEACE
The Band and Martin Scorsese (1978) (Creators). Watanokuni (Poster) (2009, April 17).
Around Christmas time in the early 1940s, a woman was shopping at a department store in Washington, D.C. with her young daughter. The daughter wandered away from her mother and a brief search was launched. A seasonal employee in her mid-forties found the crying child and promptly returned her to her mother. The mother was modernist composer and American folk music specialist, Ruth Crawford Seeger (mother to Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny; wife to ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger; and stepmother to iconic figure of the mid-20th century American folk music revival and member of The Weavers, Pete Seeger). The department store employee was none other than Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten.Ruth was taken with Elizabeth immediately and offered her domestic work as a housekeeper and cook for the Seeger family (Williamson, 2008).
ElizabethCotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in early January of 1893, or possibly1895 (no one truly knows). She gave herself the name “Elizabeth” on the first day of school as up until then her parents George Nevilles (a miner and mill worker) and Louisa Price Nevilles (a midwife, cook, and launderer) had not given her a formal name and referred to her alternately as “Babe,” “Sis,” or sometimes “Short.” The teacher asked if “Babe” had a name and she quickly answered: “Yes, Elizabeth.” Later in life, Elizabeth Cotten was quoted as saying, “I don’t know if I’d ever heard the name, but I had to say something!” (Meggs, 2002).
As a child, Elizabeth taught herself to play the banjo and guitar on her brother’s instruments, and as her and her siblings worked and played, she would continually make up songs (one of these being the signature folk song “Freight Train,” which she composed at the age of 11). It was at this time, being left-handed, that Elizabeth developed her idiosyncratic, upside-down, two-finger playing style—Cotten Picking:
The first thing I’d do, I laid the guitar flat in my lap and worked my left hand till I could play the strings backwards and forwards. And then after I got so I could do that, then I started to chord it and get the sound of a song that I know. And if it weren’t but one string I’d get that. Then finally I’d add another string to that, and keep on till I could work my fingers pretty good. And that’s how I started playing with two fingers. And after I started playing with two fingers for a while, I started using three. I was just trying to see what I could do. I never had any lessons, nobody to teach me anything. I just picked it up (Meggs, 2002).
At a young age Elizabeth Cotten left school to work, and at the age of fifteen was married and had a daughter, Lillie. From then on she only played the guitar occasionally. In fact, it wasn’t until after she had been working in the Seeger’s musical household for a few years that she began to play again, even though she was now well into her fifties. The Seeger children were developing as musicians themselves and encouraged Cotten to play them her repertoire of songs.
In 1957, while touring Europe, Peggy Seeger performed Cotten’s “Freight Train” and the song soon became a popular standard of the great folk revival. Cotten’s own performance and recording career began that year as well with Mike Seeger recording her singing at her home in Washington, D.C. Her first album, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar, was comprised of these recordings and initiated her professional relationship with the Smithsonian’s Folkways Record label. This led to numerous bookings, and Elizabeth Cotten continued to perform live until just weeks prior to her death at the age of 92 in Syracuse, New York on June 29, 1987. Three years earlier, in 1984, “Libba” (as Penny Seeger had nicknamed her as a child) won the Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording” for her album on Arhoolie Records, Elizabeth Cotten Live.
The first song for today is taken from Cotten’s second album for Folkways Records, 1967’s Shake Sugaree. Featuring Cotten’s original melody on guitar, and vocals handled by her twelve year-old granddaughter, Brenda Evans—the odd, nursery-rhyme-like title track’s lyrics were created by Brenda herself, along with her brother Johnny and her two cousins Sue and Wendy. Within the liner notes Cotten states that “the first verse, my eldest great grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it. To tell the truth, I don’t know what got it started, but it must have been something said or something done.”
And here’s Devendra Banhart performing “Shake Sugaree” as a creepy parlor song, in a video recorded early in his career at The Knitting Factory (the video itself was uploaded in 2006, but by his bald, baby face I place it as no later than 2004).
Up next is one of my favorite Cotten numbers, off the same album: I’m Going Away
Cotten, E. (1967). I’m Going Away [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Shake Sugaree [CD] Folkways Records. (1967).
Cotten, E. (1958). Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Folksongs
And Instrumentals With Guitar [CD] Folkways Records. (1958).
Cotten, E. (1958). Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie [recorded by Bob Dylan] live March 15, 2000,
Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz, California [CD] Bootleg.
Cotten, E. (1967) Shake Sugaree [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Shake Sugaree [CD] Folkways Records. (1967).
Meggs, L. (2002). Cotten, Elizabeth (c. 1893–1987). Commire, A. (Ed.). Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. 148-152 Detroit: Yorkin Publications. Retrieved March 3, 2012 from Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Williamson, N. (2008). The Rough Guide To The Best Music You’ve Never Heard. New York: Penguin.
Victoria Spivey was born on October 15, 1906, in Houston, Texas, and died at the age of 69 on October 3rd, 1976 in New York City. She was one of eight children born to part-time musician and flagman for the railroad, Grant Spivey, and nurse, Addie Smith Spivey; they themselves both being the children of ex-slaves. After Victoria’s father was killed in an accident, it became financially necessary for her to utilize her musical talents for more than mere entertainment and pocket money, and so as a young teenager she and a brother began playing regularly in local bordellos and music halls. Throughout the 1920s, she would also occasionally perform alongside “Father of the Texas Blues,” the incredible Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Moving to St. Louis in 1926, Spivey signed to the Okeh label, and recorded her signature hit “Black Snake Blues.” Over the next two years she would record roughly once a month, often accompanied by Jazz greats like Lonnie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Clarence Williams. Moving to Chicago as the record business collapsed along with all other industry during the Depression of the 1930s, Spivey expanded her career by playing vaudeville musical revues, such as the Hellzapoppin’ Revue in New York City, and she even appeared as “Missy Rose” in director King Vidor’s first sound film, Hallelujah!
Retiring from the stage in 1952—becoming an organist for a church in Brooklyn—Spivey would return to her career in the ’50s and ’60s during the folk and blues revival of that era, and she would even set up her own record label.
—In fact, if any of you ever wondered who’s that woman seated at a piano alongside a baby-faced Bob Dylan on the back cover of his 1970 album New Morning, it’s Ms. Spivey herself! In March 1962 (just a few days prior to the release of his eponymous debut) Dylan contributed harmonica and back-up vocals for Spivey Records’ Three Kings And The Queen, which featured Roosevelt Sykes, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, and “The Queen” Victoria Spivey. In a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Dylan said of the experience: “I think one of the best records that I’ve ever been a part of was the record made with Big Joe Williams and Victoria Spivey. Now that’s a record that I hear from time to time and I don’t mind listening to it. It amazes me that I was there and had done that.”—
Whether it be a song that was concerned with the circumstances of hard-living or one about the bawdy delights of intercourse, Spivey would write them with a sly intelligence, hip attitude, and deliver them in her distinctive “tiger moan.” A fine example is “Dope Head Blues” recorded on October 28, 1927 in New York City. With a fine and insightful wit this song tackles the paranoia and “top-of-the-world” delusions that come with drug addiction (which was brilliantly expressed by Christian Bale’s performance as has-been boxer Dicky Eklund in a film I just saw yesterday—David O. Russell’s The Fighter).
Perfectly put over by Lonnie Johnson’s drowsy, bumbling guitar work, here’s Victoria Spivey with “Dope Head Blues.”
Today I bring you some sound advice from Clancy Eccles, care of his 1969 Ska number “Bag A Boo (Don’t Brag, Don’t Boast).” Born December 9th 1940, in Dean Pen in the parish of St. Mary, Jamaica, Clancy moved to Kingston in 1959 where his musical career began to take off. Soon, he added “concert promoter” and “record producer” to his resume, and was instrumental in the musical shift from rocksteady to reggae.
Political by nature, Eccles supported the democratic socialist Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) during Jamaica’s 1972 prime ministerial elections by organizing a “Bandwagon” tour featuring musicians such as Bob Marley & the Wailers, Dennis Brown, Max Romeo, Delroy Wilson, and Inner Circle (The New York Times, 2005). Manley, on the platform of “Better Must Come,” went on to defeat incumbent Prime Minister Hugh Shearer. Manley remained in office until 1980, during an era blighted by escalating political violence, and was reelected to this position in 1989.
On June 30th of 2005, Clancy Eccles died at the age of 64 from complications of a heart attack in a Spanish Town hospital. Here’s what Bob Dylan (2008) had to say regarding Mr. Eccles: “What I like about him is that his music has both religious and political overtones. It’s religion and politics with a good bassline.”
So guys & girls, remember the value of humility, or, as Abraham Lincoln put it: “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself” (Think Exist, 2011).
Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes (1935)
Nation as a Promise
This weekend I honor the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who more than most would have understood the weight of the words above. He knew that our Nation is a Promise—a promise that we each make to ourselves, and to our community—a promise of a Shining City upon a Hill. However, as Jesus Christ said as he gave his Sermon on the Mount, “a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (King James Version, Matthew 5:14). Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that not only was it our duty to judge our world, but that in turn it was our burden to be judged.
Our modern view of King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech has had a tendency to reduce his words to merely a pictorial report of utopia. Yet, when King called for integration, he was speaking of our responsibility to our fellow man, and that true equality means that we all labor together to fulfill the promise of our nation, a promise that we have inherited, and a promise that we renew with each day we continue to build our homes here. King’s dream was not merely one of interracial hand-holding and pleasant afternoons together in the sun, but one where “[…] we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day” (Walenta, 2010). As Greil Marcus (2006) writes in “The Shape of Things To Come,” King’s most celebrated speech was one that “[…] judges the nation, and calls on each member to judge it in turn. The speech calls on each citizen to weigh the nation’s promises against their betrayal […]” (Marcus, p.34).
A Model of Christian Charity
Governor John Winthrop
President Ronald Reagan was fond of invoking the image of a “shining city” to promulgate a supposed moral superiority and an ideological slant on American exceptionalism, as well as to suggest that our nation could serve as guardian angel and warden for the world. Ultimately, his words were an expression of optimism. They did not take into account the age-old question of “who watches the watchmen?” Nevertheless, as conveyed in the 1630 sermon by Puritan and Massachusetts Bay Colony founder Governor John Winthrop—while aboard the Arbella, which sailed from the Isle of Wight to Salem, Mass.—this status as a City upon a Hill is one to be considered more of a threat than a blessing:
“The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely
with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to
withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a
by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to
speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We
shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause
their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out
of the good land whither we are going” (Religious Freedom, 2001).
Citizen King in the Great World House
The Computerized Plans of Destruction
As a citizen of the world, King not only appreciated the necessity for community as a prerequisite for peace on earth, but understood that community—regardless of one’s view or relation to it—is by its very nature inescapable; existence is nothing if not a multitude of threads and ligaments, by which each living thing is bound to another and all. Beyond this, King knew the obligation that comes with community. On June 14th, 1965 Dr. King gave a commencement address at Oberlin College in Ohio. Entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” the speech was more of a challenge to the graduating class than just a mere attaboy pat on the back and words of congratulations:
“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together;
all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable
network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
[…] All that I’ve said is that we must work for peace, for racial
justice, for economic justice, and for brotherhood the world over.
We have inherited a big house, a great world house in which we
have to live together—black and white, Easterners and Westerners,
Gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Moslem and Hindu.
If we all learn to do this we, in a real sense, will remain awake
through a great revolution (Oberlin College Archives, 2009).
As a true patriot, King not only loved our country and its inherent promise, but also was willing to descry that there is a disease within our nation, and that it was our responsibility as a people to deliver a cure. He knew that it little mattered where in fact Plymouth Rock landed. Regardless of semantics and pedigree, in the words of Woody Guthrie (1940), “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Again, as a patriot, King did not necessarily view the malady as an innate element to our nations principle architecture of government, Democracy, but rather the result of a promise perverted by those in power that seek personal gain through the influence of money and violence. Furthermore, I believed he viewed our nation’s malaise and inequity as a matter of depraved, cruel, arrogant, and often merely imbecilic value systems growing viral within our culture; a culture becoming a gluttonous creature in blind pursuit of comfort and dollars, obsessed with the distractions of torture and cartoons on the television. If one wonders what is wrong with this world—why these wrongs are prevalent—one need only to take a look at his world; to understand the product, one need only inspect the factory.
Despite his “I Have A Dream” speech remaining what he is mainly remembered for, I find King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” to have endured as one of his most pertinent. On April 4, 1967 (exactly one year prior to his assassination) at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King delivered these words:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the
fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on
life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we
must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed
so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed
as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is
more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice
which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will
look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West
investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America,
only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment
of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance
with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.”
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others
and nothing to learn from them is not just. (A More Perfect Union, 2011).
Essentially, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message remains one of Hope and Compassion, however, I believe there was a bit more fire & brimstone to his sermons than people care to remember. King knew that Time remains ambivalent to the aspirations of man. King knew that progress is not inevitable, but requires the vigilant struggle and toil of a conscientious community. King knew that with this community we could one day create “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” King knew that without this community we are surely damned; our names will remain a stain on history, a curse upon all our offspring’s lips, and a curse upon the lips of God itself.
—The World is a better place for having had this man in it—The World can be a better place for having had this man in it—
Here is a YouTube post with the audio for Dr. King’s speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Beneath that I have pasted several of what I feel are critical passages from his speech, particularly in the context of our modern world.
“The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
“So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
“What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
“We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing—in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
“Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid—solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
“Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists?” What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence, which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
“Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala—Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
“And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
“In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
“It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
“This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions.
“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing—embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door, which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate—ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.’ ‘If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.’ Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:
“‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action.
“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
“And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when ‘justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’” (A More Perfect Union, 2011).
OK, now that I got that off my chest—
Here are a few tracks in tribute of MLK.
First up is perhaps my favorite Public Enemy song, 1991’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona.” Chuck D spits incisive line after incisive line at both the legislature and citizens of Arizona State after their refusal to observe a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To give a brief history, Sen. John McCain (Republican of Arizona) voted against the creation of the holiday to honor King, and later defended Arizona Republican Governor Evan Mecham, who in 1987 rescinded a former Democratic governor’s establishment of the holiday. As a result, Arizona lost an estimated $300 million in cancellations of concerts, conventions and the 1993 Super Bowl (Hardigg, 1993).
Arizona State eventually relented to observe the holiday. Now, Arizona has gone on to note that in fact they are the only state that actually voted to recognize the holiday, unlike other states, which simply accepted the federal mandate. To me, however, that sounds like mere revision and spin, and an attempt to distract the issue with State’s Rights. One need only look at recent laws that permit the police force to demand your “papers,” to get a fair sense of Arizona’s collective conscious.
The video for this song was received in scandal due to graphic re-enactments of the civil rights movement and King’s 1968 murder interspersed with scenes of Public Enemy members leading an armed insurrection, which culminates with a series of political assassinations.
The heavy-metal-funk groove prominently featured throughout “By the Time I Get to Arizona” is a sample of the Bed-Stuy funk group that was formed in 1968 by three Panamanian born brothers: Mandrill. The sampled song, “Two Sisters Of Mystery” off of their 1973 album Just Outside Of Town has more in common with Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots than hip-hop, which goes to show just how eclectic P.E. could be.
Mandrill – Just Outside Of Town (1973)
However, the sample that I find particularly inventive occurs as the break-down when Chuck D grits his teeth and obstinately declares that he’s got twenty-five days to get to Arizona. To complement D’s message and delivery, the music is swallowed whole in a rhythmic swamp of menacing bass/drums and disturbing shrieks. These sounds bring to mind a perturbed vision of a playground massacre. Yet, with such precision, this snippet of looped sound is actually taken from a 1971 live concert by the Jackson 5 while performing a rendition of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By.” Recorded for the live/soundtrack album, Goin’ Back to Indiana, The screams are nothing but giddy girls cheering on the slow-step dance routine on stage. What a perfect subversion of sound.
The Jackson 5 – Goin’ Back to Indiana (1971)
Affirming the conclusion that most logical Americans arrive at, “[…] my money’s spent/on the goddamn rent/Neither party is mine/not the jackass or the elephant,” and directly stating the threatening consequences for cultural subjugation, “When the blind get a mind/ Better start fearing while we sing it;” off of Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black here’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona.”
Up next is Baby Huey and the Babysitters with their 1970 epic rendition of the song that for many came to epitomize the sixties’ Civil Rights Movement: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I’ve already discussed much of Baby Huey’s brief history and the story behind their Curtis Mayfield produced record elsewhere, so, I’d rather consider the impetus behind the song itself. Written by Cooke while on tour in early 1963 and recorded on December 21 of that same year, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released on 1964’s Ain’t That Good News, which was comprised of the first material that Cooke had recorded in the six months following the drowning death of his 18-month old son. Unfortunately, this album would also be his last released while alive, as Cooke was murdered under mysterious circumstances nine months after the album’s release; he was 33 years old. Ten days after his death on December 11, 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a single.
Sam Cooke was driven to write this song after being both inspired and filled with anxiety upon hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke felt challenged by the song’s depth and understanding of America’s current climate in regards to race relations. Cooke is quoted as saying, “Jeez, a white boy writing a song like that?” (RollingStone, 2012).
Baby Huey and the Babysitters do Cooke’s song more than justice by swelling it into an epic psychedelic anthem that keeps the integrity of the definition of psychedelic intact: soul-manifesting, or soul-revealing. Punctured with scattergun horns, Baby Huey maneuvers the ballad through various temperaments while relating various humorous but personal asides. The most poignant of these being “There’s three kind of people in this world—There’s White People, there’s Black People, and then there’s My People.”
Third, here’s the song that inspired Cooke to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan, at the age of 20 in April 1962, introduced this song while onstage at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, by stating: “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs” (RollingStone, 2012). He later said that he wrote the song in ten minutes, and anyone familiar with Dylan’s genius will believe him. The version I present was recorded live February 13th, 1974 in Los Angeles during Dylan and The Band’s joint tour. The fact that this tour was the first time Dylan had returned to the road since 1966 is evident in the unrestrained, muscular, and nearly irate delivery of this performance. Through the haze of Garth Hudson’s organ, Robbie Robertson provides some dynamic lead guitar that plays interesting games within the melody.
And to conclude, here are the final public words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The next day, at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he was murdered by a coward while standing on the 2nd floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. If these words do nothing to you then check your pulse.
The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Meridian, 1974. Print.
Public Enemy and Island Def Jam Music Group (1991) (Creators). PublicEnemyVEVO (Poster) (2010, Aug. 27). Public Enemy-By The Time I Get To Arizona [Video] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrFOb_f7ubw
Ridenhour, Robertz, Gary G, Wiz, Depper, Mandrill, Santiago. (1991). By the Time I Get to Arizona [recorded by Public Enemy] On Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black [CD] Def Jam.