“John Brown” makes a fitting Memorial Day song, one to come after we sweep up from the parades and put away the speakers’ microphones, to remind of us of the deeply personal sacrifice made when our young go off to fight. And a song to make us think before asking one more soldier to pick up a weapon overseas.
Posts Tagged ‘Song Analysis’
Early next month, a group of lawyers will gather at Fordham Law School for a symposium on Bob Dylan and the Law. There’s a certain irony to this confab since Dylan’s so deeply wary of all institutions, especially powerful ones that wield the law. In Dylan’s songs, the legal system does not meet out justice; instead, it becomes a corrupt, often blind instrument of oppression designed to prop up the powerful and the wealthy. At the same time, a conference on Dylan and the law makes sense since it is a recurring theme in his songs ad appropriate as with each passing day corporate interests seem to gain at the expense of the individual.
Our connections to individual songs can be intensely personal. A song might be no more than white noise to one person and yet to another it can be like a punch to the chest that stops the heart and snatches the breath. So it is for me with Steve Forbert’s “Going Down to Laurel.” Released in late 1978, I had been living in Ireland at the time and don’t remember hearing it until the summer of 1979 when I returned to the States. It was the summer before my senior year of college; much of the music I fed on in high school had grown stale and began giving way to new acts like the Ramones and the Clash that would become new favorites. Here came this bright-eyed folkie, full of verve and fun, an undeniable energy synched with the rhythm of my heart.
Steve Earle headed out with guitar slung on his shoulder, a head full of ideas, a mug full of attitude, a longing heart and appetites big as Texas. Fates and circumstance led him to Townes Van Zandt who became mentor, friend and shaman feeding those appetites with everything from how to pick a guitar, turn a lyric and, so the story goes, make sure he used clean needles when shooting heroin. When Towns Van Zandt passed away on New Year’s Day 1997, Earle kept following, finding his friend wherever he turned until he finally sat down in Galway, Ireland two months later and wrote Fort Worth Blues as a tribute to his departed friend.
Performed by Genya Ravan and Ian Hunter and written by Joe Droukas.
It’s 1979 and singer, producer, all-around tough girl, Genya Ravan goes into the studio to cut her second solo album. By then she had evolved through every genre that would have her, beginning with her girl band roots (Goldie and the Gingerbreads). She led the New York-based rock band Ten Wheel Drive, signed with Columbia, who thought she was the next Janis Joplin, discovered and produced the Dead Boys after a night at CBGBs and sang with everyone from Buddy Guy to Ronnie Spector to Dusty Springfield and jazzman Buzzy Linhart.
She entered the studio with a song penned by Joe Droukas that called for a duet, a rock ballad with some possibilities. Van Morrison was supposed to provide the male voice, but a tour kept him from the recording session. Ravan’s manager reached out to Bruce Springsteen cause he may have been tough enough and had the swagger to match Ravan’s fierceness. While Springsteen dawdled, Mick Ronson, lead guitarist for Mott the Hoople wandered into the studio. He had a natural suggestion: Mott’s front man, Ian Hunter. Is there anyone who does the combination of jaded and vulnerable better than Ian Hunter? He’s the ultimate cad who turns out to have a heart. One listen and you know that Hunter and Ravan made the perfect pairing for this song.
Play “Junkman” now and you’ll wonder how this didn’t become a monster hit; why isn’t it a hit now? After a few listens, you’ll have the song floating round your cranium and you’ll be repeating, “Should’ve listened to the junkman.” Forget those lists of run-of-the-mill power ballads (“November Rain” indeed), cause this here’s the real thing: a song that starts small and intimate and grows to a raging wall of sound and emotion, singers who make us believe and performances the that tear the paint off the walls.
As performed by Bob Dylan, written by David Bromberg. This article is written by Sean Dolan.
In the late winter of 1992, Bob Dylan and Neil Young (don’t you just love the image?) together attended a performance by David Bromberg, the exceptional multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and singer, later-to-be luthier and collector of vintage American violins, who had been performing roots music and Americana long before the terms were in common use, at the Bottom Line, the fabled, long-since-shuttered music club (capacity: 400) on West 4th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Dylan was at a creative impasse at the time; though he’d experienced the various musical epiphanies regarding guitar and singing techniques so vividly described in his memoir Chronicles and was utilizing them to revitalize his stage career (the so-called Neverending Tour was already well in progress), he wasn’t writing, and though he put up a bold front about it, one imagines that this fallow period must still have been some kind of torment, especially for one who’d been able for so long to draw on such a prodigious and seemingly indefatigable gift for writing words and music. (The obvious pride he later took, when he began writing again, in the albums Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, especially, would seem to support this conjecture.) “The world doesn’t need any more songs,” Dylan said at this period. “They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to if they want to listen to songs . . . unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and have something to say. That’s a different story.”
Performed and written by Howlin’ Wolf
Imagine sitting in a small dark club on the Southside of Chicago. Gaze upon Howlin’ Wolf in all his raging glory, six foot six and three hundred pounds, eyes wide as hubcaps and shining bright as headlights, mouth like a junkyard dog, smiling like a man about to have his way. A nasty guitar note rings out. Wolf’s voice rises from somewhere deep within, it scrapes, growls, stretches and punches; it’s full of broken stones and smashed metal, heartache and sinew. The voice comes from someone who’s taken beatings and given them out too; someone who’s known love and been betrayed by love, someone who knows raw sex of Biblical proportions. That voice is not alone. It’s backed by the one of the best blues bands ever, drums and bass working together, Hubert Sumlin’s guitar as rough and ready as Wolf’s voice. The music shakes your foundation, rattles your walls and makes you quiver in fearful joy. Women be careful cause the Wolf’s hard to resist. Men be careful cause there’s always the chance for trouble. “Ah, whoo hoo, ooh…”
Like many great songs, “Smokestack Lightning” contains great mystery. One can ask exactly what the song is about even as the grunts and howls of Wolf convey all you need to know.
Birches – A Married Couple’s Love Song
Written and performed by Bill Morrissey
In his song, “Casey, Illinois,” Bill Morrissey sings, “Now I’m not young in a young man’s game,” a sad truth; playing and listening to rock music favors the young. The quintessential rock music still flows from Elvis’s braggadocio and broken heart rhythm and blues and Chuck Berry’s car songs. We grow excited about that new young band (Kings of Leon, anyone) and often forget or shake our heads over the Stones in their 60’s still trying to rock and roll. Many of the best artists have continued to produce as they enter their senior years and their audience ages too.
Yet much of the best music comes from older artist dealing with themes of maturity and much of the audience has aged too. Think of Dylan’s recent work – perhaps more resonant that anything he has ever written. Neil Young still thrashes about trying to make sense of the world as he sees it while Van Morrison still seeks his vision, only not as a young man would. Springsteen’s movie song, “The Wrestler,” grapples with finding victory in accepting one’s fate. Dylan’s song “Red River Shore” – arguably one of his best ever – may make no sense for the 20-year-old college student who lacks the experiences to understand, but it resonates with sadness and recognition to the older listener.
Bill Morrissey’s “Birches,” a love song as moving as any you will hear, stands as an example of a song that the young man or woman may not comprehend, but will rivet the middle age man or woman as it captures the small defeats and victories that infuse a marriage. Those familiar with Morrissey know the intricate craftsmanship that goes into his story-songs: concise, rich and telling details. Others have likened him to minimalist short-story writers like Raymond Carver, though the better comparison seems to be Andre Dubus given the New England settings, the deep empathy for their characters and the underlying spiritual dimensions in their work.
Corpus Christi Bay
Performed and written by Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen is a master storyteller whose songs show great range from the hilarious (“Merry Christmas from the Family”) to the anthemic (“The Road Goes on Forever”) to the poignant (“Mariano”). Listen to his music and you can tell he learned his craft listening to the Texas masters like Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. This song tells the tale of two hard-living, hard-partying brothers working the oil rigs of Corpus Christi Bay. The mix of country and Tex-Mex music (including a wispy accordion) keeps the song light and Keen’s singing rolls as easy as a convertible cruising along back road Texas highway. The lyrics seem to match the music recounting the escapades of the fun loving boys, though by song’s end we dwell in the darkness of the one brother’s drinking and loneliness. The lightness of Keen’s touch keeps the song from falling into a maudlin puddle of self-pity.
Gimme Some Truth
Performed and written by John Lennon.
I took a long drive with my eldest son, Patrick, a few weeks ago and along the way, we found ourselves listening to this song and some other of what I call John Lennon’s primal scream music. The raw, angry sound caught Paddy off-guard cause he knew the Beatles music – even at age 20 with a preference for hip-hop, one can’t avoid the Beatles – but he did not know John Lennon’s solo work.
The song and others – “Working Class Hero,” “God,” “I Found Out” – certainly demand that you pay attention. Paddy laughed when I told him about Richard Nixon putting John Lennon on his Enemies List, serious stuff that seems beyond buffoonish now. Lennon crams so many words into his lines and spits them out with a venom that continues to strike a chord. While arising from a specific time and place, the conviction and sentiments remain strong enough that Vin Scelsa took to playing “Gimme Some Truth” on every show during the “Imperial Presidency” as he called George W.’s term. Folks like Travis, Sam Phillips and Pearl Jam have made more recent covers in their effort to respond to the kaleidoscope of world events.
In a funny way, the song shares some unlikely sentiments with so many Tea Baggers who vent their anger at today’s version of “uptight-short sighted- narrow minded hypocritics” and “neurotic-psychotic-pig headed politicians.” Of course, no self-respecting Tea Bagger would align him or herself with a long, haired freak like John Lennon calling Richard Nixon “tricky dick.”
Released on the Imagine album in 1971, the song had its origins back in 1969 while the Beatles recorded what became their Let it Be album. I first came across the song in the summer of 1973, summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, a time when I was ripe for change and a few musical bolts by John Lennon and Bob Dylan did the trick. Picture those reenactments of Earth’s primordial goo that lightening strikes and brings forth the first forms of life.