Saturday, December 1, 2012

Leftovers (Rings): Ring Them Bells

Sarah Jarosz: Ring Them Bells (orig. Bob Dylan)


Our "rings" theme was designed to honor the Olympics, but even after leaving it on the boards for an extra week, we didn't do so well - only three posts made it to the blog, perhaps our quietest lull ever. And I take some responsibility for this: at the time, I was in the midst of some rebalancing, trying to find my center in the midst of overcommitment and chaos - thanks to theater performances, work issues, and a struggle to stay connected to my own family, I was pretty much absent from here for a while, and as such, missed the chance to test the waters on this among many other well-constructed themes.

But here we are, on the other side. And although the rings that this song features are not round but resonant, I cannot help but take the opportunity to share one of my favorite Dylan covers ever.

It's easy to do this song badly. Natasha Beddingfield's take on the tune, featured on this past year's gigantic Dylan tribute from Amnesty International, starts quite powerfully and sparse, but turns too soon into a bombastic pop wail framed by anthemic guitar and hammond organ, which seems to me a total misread of its narrative. Sufjan Stevens' deconstruction, which featured prominently on the soundtrack to 2007 Dylan film I'm Not There, is playful, I suppose, and fun for experimentalists, but Stevens' tendency to treat each verse and transition as an opportunity for a genre- and phase-shift obscures the consistency of the lyrics, and buries the message in a haze of production trickery as we struggle to find our footing in its blizzard of collage sound.

But Sarah Jarosz is an angel who can do no wrong in my ears. Her 2011 neo-grass take on this song is a warm, bittersweet triumph of interpretation, a potent message of aching for hope in a world where we just might make it after all. Clean and consistent, fluid and fine, the music supports the lyrical sentiment, capturing Dylan-the-cynic at his most hopeful without losing the tenuous temerity, the self-effacing folly, the very awareness of hubris that lies at the heart of such a bell-ringing celebration from such a complex songwriter. And if we needed proof, we need only listen to this "alternative" solo gospel piano version from Dylan himself, which contains its own fragile mix of despair and hope.

So ring out, you Christmas bells. Cut into my heart as we look back on a year of pain and sorrow, triumph and struggle. Ring loud, so that all may share the experience, and celebrate together: it's the season of hope, and we made it through alive once again.

PS: here's a sweetly ragged live version from Ron Sexsmith (with Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello) that comes almost as close:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Leftovers (Songs from Poems): Makers

Rocky Votolato: Makers


One of the many things that I have enjoyed over the past (nearly) year contributing to this blog is that it has forced me to learn more about the songs and artists that I write about, and to take more in-depth looks at the songs. You know how you can hear a song a million times, but not really know what it is about until someone says something, or you read something about it, or you simply listen to it more carefully? That’s what happened today when I decided to write about Rocky Votolato’s “Makers.”

When I saw that the theme was “Leftovers,” I figured that I could pick a song I wanted to write about and find a theme that fit. Back in June, I wrote about William Elliott Whitmore, and the great concert that I saw with my son, and I have wanted to post about the other two acts we saw that night, Rocky Votolato and Lucero. And in looking at old themes, I noticed that Autopsy IV (whose blog Nine Bullets has been a favorite of mine for a while), posted a few Lucero songs back in 2009, under the theme “Drinkin’ Songs,” which made me think of writing about “Makers.” But, although the song mentions my favorite bourbon, it really isn’t a drinkin’ song.

I’ve heard the song many times, in Votolato’s recorded version, played live, and most often, played and sung by my son and his friends. After that great concert, we both became huge Lucero fans, and I really was touched by Whitmore. But my son fell hard for Rocky, and learned to play his songs. He taught his friends “Makers” and they played it at high school cast parties and other musical events. (He also saw Votolato a number of times, met him once at a small concert and even won his guitar in a raffle. And it is quite a nice guitar.) We contributed money through Kickstarter for Votolato’s latest album, and as a premium, received the handwritten, autographed lyrics to “Makers” in the picture above.

But what is it about? Frankly, I never really focused on it—except I knew it was about death in some form. I’ve always been more of a music/gut feel kind of guy, and great lyrics, to me, are like a bonus. So, this morning, I read them, and, yeah, it is about death, and I suppose, the narrator’s rumination on death. So, why is it a song from a poem? Doing my due diligence, I searched on the Internet, and found a comment from a fan, who said that he had heard Votolato explain that the song was inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish,” written about Ginsberg’s mother. To quote this anonymous poster:

“Rocky and his friend were talking about existentialist philosophy which deals with the meaning of life, whether or not God exists, the consequences of believing or not believing... essentially the philosophy of existence. They were also drinking Makers. It just so happens that on this night they were in the same New York apartment building that Ginsberg wrote ‘Kaddish’ in.”

Now, I’m not going to rely totally on what I read on the Internet, so I read “Kaddish.” And damned if there aren’t clear connections between the poem and the song. Not to mention that the song mentions “Allen.” So, I’m sold on this interpretation.

“Makers” is a powerful song, made better by spending time with it, savoring it and enjoying it, like a great poem, or a fine glass of bourbon.

Leftovers (Elected Officials): Governor Al Smith

Uncle Dave Macon: Governor Al Smith

[purchase Uncle Dave Macon: The Very Best of]

A topical song recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in Chicago on July 26, 1928, “Governor Al Smith” starts off with an exclamatory, “Gettin' right now! Al Smith nominated for president, My vote to him I'm a-gonna present, darlin.” Today, we have political action committees spending millions to try to influence elections. Back in the 1920s, it was just a banjo-picker (along with guitarist Sam McGee) singing his advocacy to the tune of an old folk melody.

Uncle Dave’s endorsement of Smith in the 1928 U.S. Presidential election was a rather amazing thing given that Smith was both a northerner and a Catholic. Uncle Dave’s support was largely related to Smith’s platform promise to repeal Prohibition, and he sings “Smith wants everything to be just right, darlin.” Nearly every verse in the song deals with alcohol. Uncle Dave clearly wants a real drink, probably a little rum (to go with his little camphor gum) … and not any of that poison moonshine that was being transported and sold by bootleggers.

Four-time Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith (12/30/1873 – 10/4/1944) ran for U.S. President in 1928 against Herbert Hoover, who had served as Secretary of Commerce for the Calvin Coolidge. Our country had experienced a great economic boom, but that would all end with the stock market crash of 1929. The nation's prosperity in ‘28, along with anti-Catholic sentiments towards Smith, pretty much ensured Hoover’s general election win.

Macon would later refer to Smith's defeat in a song called "Nashville" in which he sings, “Herbert Hoover was elected and Al Smith he was rejected, but he is highly respected in Nashville….If you want to get a drink, give the Democrats a wink, You'll get it quicker than you think in Nashville.” Those who follow politics will also note that Smith’s legacy lives on even today, and both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke at an “Alfred E. Smith dinner” during their recent campaigning in 2012.

Here’s some interesting silent film from the presidential election of 1928, featuring the Democratic Party's ticket, Alfred E. Smith and Joseph T. Robinson. From Arkansas, Robinson was then Senate Minority Leader.

Also, here's some newsreel footage of Al Smith commenting on the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Besides Smith, I’m sure that Uncle Dave Macon was also pleased at the sight of those huge shipments of gin being made with the approval of the Feds for the first time in thirteen years.