09 December 2009

interpretation theory (sing, sing, sing)


as usual, there were a couple of different ideas floating around.

i've been big on the communal experience of music lately. making strides...it's been a good year for it. living in a communal house now, we got a piano a few months ago, and we've been having sing-along parties. four weeks straight this summer i found myself in group-sings; singing with friends, housemates, family members, semi-strangers, co-religionists... yes yes yes.

great times, and it can be quite fascinating and (at times) challenging too, finding the right songs to sing, songs that enough folks know well enough to make it worth it. it's pretty interesting to find out who knows what. seems like there should be some reasonably dependable shared repertoire of familiar songs – and to some extent there is, but it's often smaller than you'd think, and it tends to shift around. i made this handy-dandy google-doc spreadsheet for (hopefully) easy reference during sings, the idea being to develop a common database that others can add to and expand and use for their own ends. (maybe i'll put the link on the sidebar to help facilitate that.)

meanwhile, i've continued along my musico-historical travels thru pop-ways past & present: picking up a bunch of louvin brothers and elvis presley records; checking out some goofy early hollies sides; happening into a brief but passionate richard thompson/fairport convention phase; going out tuesdays to dance to blues & swing (& jazz & pop & soul & r'n'b);
digging covers albums (and live shows!) by sid & susie & nellie mckay & neko case & kitty daisy & lewis. & maybe most notably, reading elijah wald's excellent book how the beatles destroyed rock'n'roll (which i reviewed for citypaper), which is about 20th century pop music up through the middle '60s or so and offers some fascinating new understandings. (of, among other things, the nature of the communal musical experiences, and how dramatically they've changed since fifty years ago.)

all of this has gotten me thinking about the notion of a canon of pop standards, analagous to the jazz standards and blues standards which are so neatly catalogued there on wikipedia. (and seemingly exhaustively too – year by year by year – i sure couldn't think of any standards they left out.) specifically, post-war pop – before that it's kinda coterminous with jazz standards ("the great american songbook") anyway. (or, better, at least alongside the chronological distinction, a stylistic one: the great american stewpot of folk, blues, country, western, gospel, r'n'b, r'n'r, race music, hillbilly music etc. etc. – the other, grittier side of the fence from "trad. vocal pop," not that the lines don't criss-cross any-which-anyway...)

songs that have been sung many times by many different singers, songs which are more familiar in themselves than any single performance of them, songs whose origins may have gotten somewhat muddled and dispersed along the way, at least enough to loosen them from strict association with one specific artist. often, songs which may have started out as country but found their way into soul, or vice versa, or into pop or folk or reggae or rock'n'roll. songs that in their day, when they were new, seem to have been on the lips of just about everyone in the country – sometimes yielding two, three, four recorded versions in a single year – and old songs that folks are still singing to this day. great songs. by great songwriters? sung by great singers? maybe, yes – but more importantly: songs that are great for singing.

so: i did some poking around (itunes, google, xtorrent, the piano...); i made a bunch of lists; i made a mix.[*] it looks like this:


title: american tunes (volumes 1-3)
date: november 2009
format: 3 x cd (77 tracks!!!)
packaging: custom cardboard tri-fold pak with velcro-dot closure flap, jet-printed sticker-paper tracklists 'neath transparent rosette-hubs. discs white with printed sticker labellage.


American Tunes: Volume One

1. “Trouble in Mind” [R. Jones] as sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1941)
2. “I Almost Lost My Mind” [I. Hunter] as sung by Ivory Joe Hunter (1949)
3. “Blue Moon” [Rodgers/Hart] as sung by Elvis Presley (1956)
4. “You Don't Know Me” [Arnold/Walker] as sung by Eddy Arnold (1956)
5. “He'll Have To Go” [Allison/Allison] as sung by Jim Reeves (1960)
6. “Please Stay” [Bacharach/Hilliard] as sung by The Drifters (1961)
7. “Bring It On Home To Me” [S. Cooke] as sung by Sam Cooke (1962)
8. “I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself” [Bacharach/David] as sung by Tommy Hunt (1962)
9. “The End Of The World” [Kent/Dee] as sung by Skeeter Davis (1963)
10. “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” [Caldwell/Marcus/Benjamin] as sung by Nina Simone (1964)
11. “To Love Somebody” [Gibb/Gibb] as sung by The Bee Gees (1967)
12. “The Dark End Of The Street” [Moman/Penn] as sung by James Carr (1967)
13. “Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)” [J. Cox] as sung by Otis Redding (1968)
14. “Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye” [L. Cohen] as sung by Roberta Flack (1969)
15. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” [Moman/Penn] as sung by The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
16. “Pouring Water On A Drowning Man” [Baker/McCormick] as sung by Otis Clay (1970)
17. “Heart Like A Wheel” [A. McGarrigle] as sung by Linda Ronstadt (1974)
18. “You Keep Me Hanging On” [Holland/Dozier/Holland] as sung by Mike Dorane (1975)
19. “Always On My Mind” [Christopher/James/Thompson] as sung by Willie Nelson (1982)
20. “How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?” [P. Nelson] as sung by Prince (1982)
21. “Sweet Jane” [L. Reed] as sung by Cowboy Junkies (1988)
22. “I Started A Joke” [Gibb/Gibb/Gibb] as sung by Low (1996)
23. “When You Were Mine” [P. Nelson] as sung by Crooked Fingers (2002)
24. “Hard Life” [W. Oldham] as sung by Bonnie "Prince" Billy (2003)
25. “A Change Is Gonna Come” [S. Cooke] as sung by Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens (2009)

American Tunes: Volume Two

1. “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” [McHugh/Fields] as sung by Benny Goodman & Peggy Lee (1941)
2. “Let The Good Times Roll” [Jordan/Theard] as sung by Louis Jordan (1946)
3. “This Little Light of Mine” [trad.] as sung by The Louvin Brothers (1957)
4. “Money Honey” [J. Stone] as sung by Wanda Jackson (1958)
5. “I've Told Every Little Star” [Kern/Hammerstein] as sung by Linda Scott (1961)
6. “See See Rider” [Rainey/Arent] as sung by LaVern Baker (1962)
7. “You Really Got A Hold On Me” [S. Robinson] as sung by The Beatles (1963)
8. “I Just Want To Make Love To You” [W. Dixon] as sung by The Rolling Stones (1964)
9. “All I Really Want To Do” [B. Dylan] as sung by The Byrds (1965)
10. “Let The Good Times Roll” [Goodman/Lee] as sung by The Animals (1965)
11. “The In Crowd” [B. Page] as sung by The Mamas & The Papas (1966)
12. “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” [Holland/Dozier/Holland] as sung by Jr. Walker & the All Stars (1966)
13. “I Got You Babe” [S. Bono] as sung by Etta James (1968)
14. “Me And Bobby McGee” [Kristofferson/Foster] as sung by Kenny Rogers (1970)
15. “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” [R. Thompson] as sung by Richard & Linda Thompson (1974)
16. “It's All Over Now” [Womack/Womack] as sung by Ry Cooder (1974)
17. “Soldier of Love” [Moon/Cason] as sung by Marshall Crenshaw (1982)
18. “I Got Loaded” [R. Camille] as sung by Los Lobos (1984)
19. “Don't Look Back” [Robinson/White] as sung by Peter Tosh with Mick Jagger (1987)
20. “Falling In Love” [R. Newman] as sung by Randy Newman (1988)
21. “Windfall” [J. Farrar] as sung by Son Volt (1995)
22. “Payday” [J. Winchester] as sung by Elvis Costello (1995)
23. “The Littlest Birds” [Parton/Holland] as sung by The Be Good Tanyas (2001)
24. “My Baby Just Cares For Me” [Donaldson/Kahn] as sung by Devon Sproule (2003)
25. “Wagon Wheel” [Dylan/Secor] as sung by Old Crow Medicine Show (2004)
26. “I've Got My Mojo Working” [P. Foster] as sung by Kitty Daisy & Lewis (2008)
27. “My Boysas sung by Taken By Trees (2009)

American Tunes: Volume Three

1. “Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You?” [Redman/Razaf] as sung by Nat King Cole (1946)
2. “Tennessee Waltz” [King/Stewart] as sung by Les Paul & Mary Ford (1950)
3. “Tonight You Belong To Me” [Rose/David] as sung by Patience & Prudence (1956)
4. “When Will I Be Loved?” [P. Everly] as sung by The Everly Brothers (1960)
5. “You're No Good” [C. Ballard] as sung by Dee Dee Warwick (1963)
6. “Runnin' Out of Fools” [Ahlert/Rogers] as sung by Aretha Franklin (1964)
7. “Hesitation Blues” [trad.] as sung by The Holy Modal Rounders (1964)
8. “Let It Be Me” [Bécaud/Curtis] as sung by Jerry Butler & Betty Everett (1964)
9. “The First Cut Is The Deepest” [C. Stevens] as sung by P. P. Arnold (1967)
10. “The Very Thought Of You” [R. Noble] as sung by Albert King (1967)
11. “The Long Black Veil” [Wilkin/Dill] as sung by Johnny Cash (1968)
12. “Walk On By” [Bacharach/David] as sung by Isaac Hayes (1969)
13. “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face?” [B. Anderson] as sung by Waylon Jennings (1970)
14. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” [J. South] as sung by Willie Hightower (1970)
15. “San Francisco Bay Blues” [J. Fuller] as sung by Mungo Jerry (1970)
16. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” [Goffin/King] as sung by Carole King (1971)
17. “Early In The Morning” [Jordan/Bartley/Hickman] as sung by Harry Nilsson (1971)
18. “The Tattler” [Phillips/Cooder/Titelman] as sung by Billy Bragg (1986)
19. “Have A Little Faith In Me” [J. Hiatt] as sung by John Hiatt (1987)
20. “The Sign” [Berggren/Berggren/Berggren/Ekberg] as sung by The Mountain Goats (1995)
21. “Thirteen” [Chilton/Bell] as sung by Elliott Smith (1998)
22. “Time After Time” [Hyman/Lauper] as sung by Cassandra Wilson (1999)
23. “None Of Us Are Free” [Russell/Mann/Weill] as sung by Solomon Burke (2002)
24. “I Wish I Was The Moon” [N. Case] as sung by Neko Case (2002)
25. “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right” [B. Dylan] as sung by Randy Travis (2008)

i can't promise that all or even most of the songs on here fit the above list of criteria for "pop standards," in fact there are deliberately plenty that don't. some of them definitely overlap with the lists of jazz and blues standards (indeed, some of them are jazz and/or blues.) not all of them were necessarily ever big hits (though most of them were, to some extent, in some form) and i'll admit it, they're not even all particularly good to sing. but: all of them are songs that i like a lot.

so categories are loose here, and bets are off, but one thing to note is that the majority of these are cover versions (or, in some cases, originals that aren't necessarily the best-known versions of the song) – hence their inclusion in the extremely nifty cover songs database secondhandsongs.com, which i am surprised that i never discovered before i started working on this project. (almost all of the song titles above, and a few of the more notable writers and interpreters, have links to their respective entries – check it out, there's a lot to learn.)

oh man, there's so much that could be said about these songs. many are old favorites of mine, some i've only come to recently, or recently rediscovered. (thanks to nava for suggesting "tennessee waltz"; cara for requesting "s.f. bay blues" – good to get some geographical specificity in there.) admittedly my long love affair with elvis costello was highly influential here: he has sung no fewer than ten of these, most of which i first heard from him (many on the imperishable kojak variety – oddly, all in a row on side 2). and there could easily have been more... he really does have incredible taste. sigh. love that ry cooder too – he's done five or more. (that "tattler" – which has been sung by linda ronstadt as well as billy bragg, as has "heart like a wheel" – is something else – wait'll you hear the 1928 washington phillips recording it's based on.) both of them are true students of americana, and i am only too happy to play their disciple.

a handful of other names kept cropping up again and again in my searches, most of them singers who've made their more to a greater or lesser extent as interpretive artists – nina simone, linda ronstadt, willie nelson, aretha franklin, cyndi lauper (she sang a bunch of these on her recent 'standards' record) – and they became something like emblematic guideposts to what should be included here.

i did set a few ground rules for myself. i tried to stick with lesser-known renditions, both to keep myself entertained and, per usual, so as to share something new. it wasn't originally going to be limited to one performance per artist, but that ended up being a helpful restraint. obviously, each disc is in chronological sequence (a restriction which got to be quite a nuisance sometimes.) i didn't set specific start or end years (though 1941-2009 works out to a nice span i think) but i did try to keep the historical distribution from disc to disc and across each disc. (inevitably, the golden '60s get the lion's share of love, but it's hard to complain about that.) the first two volumes each occupy a particular mood-range, which should be fairly apparent from listening, while volume three is a bit more of a grab-bag (though almost all of the songs are about relationships, except a couple are about social justice.)

i went back and forth a bit but decided to include a smattering of newer songs which have not, admittedly, entered into any kind of a canon. they're my proposals for new additions, songs that i hope will continue to be covered and sung, and that more or less fit in with the broad stylistic parameters of the mix. plus i just want to share them and sing them. (there will be a whole disc of songs in this category, coming up before too long – made a draft already: clutch jawn to sing along) i want to single out "my boys," which is one of the odder inclusions here. true, neither it nor "my girls" (of which it is a cover) quite fits in with the overarching style, but i'm excited by the fact that it's a cover which came out the same year as the original – just like they used to do back in 1956 – and the expansive future it suggests for the (already fairly well established) song.

i didn't pay too much attention to songwriters, though i did follow a few down some interesting paths. not too surprising that bacharach shows up a few times. and dylan, natch – i had to work hard (and scrap the hollies' scrappy "i shall be released") to keep it down to only three dylan tunes (and that "wagon wheel" is sneaky one – i must say, i'm amazed at the speed with which it has entered the canon, and it has unquestionably arrived: at the last sing-along it was one of the few that seemingly everybody knew.) i'm glad i got l. cohen in (most of his stuff is still pretty new to me, but i've really been loving that one in particular.) i wish there were more carole king songs, and i'm sad that the only randy newman song is one that nobody else seems to have sung (yet), since he's definitely written some oft-sung tunes that probably would have been better fits.

a note about the title: it's a reference to a paul simon song (nava's favorite), which i wanted to include – probably would have except the versions that i found, by willie nelson and 'songbird' eva cassidy, were not very good. (apparently there's a version in italian? that is...ridiculous.) i would have liked to include some simon, as he's one of my favorite writers, but among other things i find it hard to dissocciate any of his songs from his versions of them. but the note i meant to make about the title is that "american" wasn't originally a specific part of the concept for this project, and it still isn't, necessarily. it is true that almost every song was either written or performed by americans, though not necessarily both; however, "to love somebody" is by australians, "i want to see the bright lights tonight" by brits, and oh yeah "i wish i was the moon" by a canuck (in all three cases sung here by their authors). but i think it's not too far of a stretch to say that they're in a specifically american style, or stylistic milieu.


[*] Ideally, this would have taken the form of a home-recorded compilation featuring me singing all of these songs along with group accompaniment by ry cooder, arlo guthrie, stevie wonder, levon helm, hank williams, little richard, tom waits, tina turner, kanye west, ringo starr, sheryl crow, b.b. king, charles mingus, emmylou harris, dave grohl, scarlett johanson and bono. but i decided to use other peoples' recordings instead.

No comments: