Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Three Chords and the Truth

On a lazy Sunday afternoon in May 1977, I was taking the escalator up and out of the Universitetskaya metro stop near my Moscow State University student residence, when I saw two fellow American exchange students, both like me from Ohio, coming down the adjacent escalator.  Where you guys headed? I recall asking. The girls responded with great excitement: “ Come on, Khlebchick! We’re going to see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Why don’t you join us?”

They went on to rush an explanation of where the American country band was playing and how the two of them had gotten tickets. I hesitated, not knowing much about Nitty Gritty and not really “into country” at that time. And then my chance had passed; the girls were gone.

A day or so later when Laura and Deb told me about how great the concert was, and how they’d been invited back stage to meet the stars and then to the after-concert party at the US Embassy, I was deflated. (And if my memory serves me correctly, they reported that Comrade Brezhnev, apparently a fan of American roots music, was also in the audience.)

Now I realize what an opportunity I had missed. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band might have had less rock star flash than similarly-influenced units from the era, groups such as The Band and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but its members were seriously talented, and by recording with Maybelle Carter and Vassar Clements on the album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, they not only gave a nod to their “bluegrass” roots but put themselves at the forefront of a “country and western” (C&W) revival.

The C&W appellation actually included a number of early 20th century folk music styles, from reels and ballads to cowboy songs, accompanied either solo on guitar or with a combination of guitar, violin, harmonica, banjo and dulcimer. The genre in its various forms originally gained popular appeal in the 1920s with recordings by Fiddlin’ John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole. By the 1930s groups such as the Skillet Lickers and the Carter Family as well as individuals such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe had become widely known through nascent radio broadcasts.

But soon the music had been overshadowed, first by jazz and rhythm and blues, then by pop and rock. By the late 70s, however, country had shed its “western” nomenclature and polished its rough-hewn edges, reinventing itself as it incorporated elements of pop, rock and R&B, gaining audiences far beyond its blue-collar Appalachian and prairie home. Country’s popularity in the USA today is unparalleled. In fact, according to a recent Harris survey, 60% of America’s adult population like country music, supporting 2,600 full-time country radio stations. That’s up 92% since I was in Moscow missing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

This playlist includes a range of songs from beneath the country umbrella, including a bluegrass number by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe (its alleged father), country rock by the likes of Pure Prairie League and the Marshall Tucker Band, pop country by 60s idol Skeeter Davis and Canada’s Cowboy Junkies, and the roots Nashville sound by legends Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline.  Of course, there’s also a representative song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

If that was good enough for Comrade Brezhnev, it’s good enough for me. Enjoy!  

* This essay was written for the Daddy Peet Expresso program entitled "Three Chords and the Truth": 

Psychic Elephant & other gems

The range of approaches and results in songwriting never fails to amaze. Just look at a sampling of the titles in this set, on a continuum from the most straightforward to the most enigmatic: Miriam’s Goodbye to Africa, Last Steam Engine Train, Satin Doll, Rio Nights, Como Siento Yo, Luz Negra, The Calling, Camions Sauvages, Kinsiona, Meadows of Dan, Fake Plastic Trees, Psychic Elephant.

Though the meaning behind musical titles can elude discerning listeners, it is often the lyrics – no matter how inventive -- that baffle us to the point of no return, even while bringing us great entertainment in our attempts at deciphering. Over the years how many Beatles’ fans and critics alike have agonized about the meaning of the classic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” without simply attributing the psychedelic imagery and that of other masterpieces from the period to John Lennon’s well-documented interest in hallucinations?

Another fine example is Thom Yorke’s 2001 classic, “Fake Plastic Trees,” from Radiohead’s The Bends:

Her green plastic watering can / For her fake Chinese rubber plant /
In the fake plastic earth / That she bought from a rubber man / In a town full of rubber plans / To get rid of itself … // It wears her out, it wears her out / It wears her out, it wears her out…

We can speculate on whether Yorke is feeling anger or amusement, whether it’s based on some reality or merely theater of the absurd. But for many listeners, the words of such numbers are irrelevant.  It’s all about the mood created, the rhythms, the arrangements. For others, realism in lyrics is a must, and so the lyrics of a song like those by Brazilian songstress Fernanda Takai – even while dramatic to the extreme -- make much needed sense:

Sempre só
(Always alone)
Eu vivo procurando alguém
(I live searching for someone)
Que sofra como eu também
(Who suffers like me)
Mas não consigo achar ninguém (But I don’t succeed in finding anyone)

Sempre só
 (Always alone)
E a vida vai seguindo assim
(And so life goes)
Não tenho quem tem dó de mim (There’s no one to pity me)
Estou chegando ao fim (Arriving at the end)

A luz negra de um destino cruel
 (The black light of a cruel destiny)
Ilumina um teatro sem cor
 (Illuminates a theater without color)
Onde estou representando o papel
 (Where I play the role)
De palhaço do amor (Of a clown of love)

Whatever your fancy, the beauty of music is that there is a song being created every day that will soothe the soul each one of us. There’s a number in this set for each of us as well. Enjoy!  

*This is the blurb for the Daddy Peet Expresso program "Psychic Elephant and other gems":

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Rastaman Vibration: A Brief Intercultural Encounter

Sunday afternoon at Goodluck Garden. From inside my second story concrete nest, I can see the pool, cool transparent blue. Usually the pool by this time of day is filled with kids and doting parents -- of Singaporean Chinese, Indian or Caucasian background -- splashing each other, floating on rafts or shooting water guns. 

But this afternoon is different. There is only one family at the pool today, a mixed family, the wife a Caucasian woman in her early to mid 30s, a pair of cute kids around three or four years old, and nearby, the husband, a very athletic black man with thick dreadlocks dangling to his waist. What makes this scene most unusual is that I have rarely seen any fellow Goodluck Gardeners of African (or African-American? Jamaican? African-European?) origin, much less anyone whose hair  seems to be classic Rastafarian.

I call my daughter from her room to see the family, simply because I know she will admire the man's hair, which she does (she also says he is "amazingly buff").  As we then spy on the group  from our apartment, discussing the wife's midriff bulge, the man's dreads and the beauty of the couple's kids, we witness an unusual occurrence. 

Another couple, seemingly in their 20s and also mixed (she appears Chinese, he Indian), approach the pool area from the area opposite our place, hand in hand with their own kids, twins of two years old or so. They are dressed in bathing suits as well. Suddenly though, when they get a view of the athletic gentleman, they do an about-face, making a hasty retreat. 

Then my daughter and I both wonder: What has just happened?