Tag Archives: music

RIP: Representative John Lewis (21 February 1940 – 17 July 2020)

“Oh Freedom” sung by Earl R. Nance and group

Thoughts on watching the body of Civil Rights and Justice Warrior, Representative John Lewis, being ferried in a horse-drawn wagon across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

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“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried to my grave”

‘Oh Freedom’, an African American freedom song associated with the U.S. Civil Rights movement but actually written after the U.S. Civil War (12 April 1860 – 9 April 1865). A version was first recorded by Earl R. Nance (with Clarence Dooley, Tenor Vocal & Guitar; Madie Nance, Soprano Vocal; Helen Nance, Alto Vocal & Mandolin) August 26, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. (video, above)

Most of us are more familiar with the Odetta (1957), Harry Belafonte (1960) or Joan Baez (1963 March on Washington) versions but the original recording takes me to an earlier place in our country’s history.

*****

“get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself.”
– John Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020 (a motivator to the end!)

John Lewis also spoke similar words to young people at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools National Training in June 2014. Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Fund wrote, “As he spoke to today’s young Freedom Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do something . . . You can make a contribution.”

John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but he was not finished.

He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964, almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.””

*****

Looking across the aisle, I also found this interesting scene on the morning TV show The View (transcript from The Decider):

“[Meghan] McCain offered her own reflection on Lewis’ legacy with a personal story about meeting him at her father’s office when she was 14. “It was important to [her father] that I heard this man’s story and knew who he was,” said the co-host. “I can remember when I was 14 not really ever seeing my dad deferential or in awe of anyone, and that was one of the first times.”

McCain added that while Lewis and her father “ended up having a political disagreement” when Sen. McCain ran for president — “I have no interest in rehashing it right now,” she said — but they were able to squash it. “When my dad passed, John Lewis put out one of the more beautiful statements of anyone,” she recalled.”

John Lewis – a great American humanist.

RIP: Little Richard – (Richard Wayne Penniman)(5 Dec 1932 – 9 May 2020)

Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956
Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956.
Photograph of poster from liveauctioneers.

Almost 70 years on it is difficult, unless you possessed young ears in the middle of the 1950s, to understand the enormous impact a song like Tutti Frutti had on its listeners.

Everything about Little Richard shouted ‘DIFFERENT!’ Just look at that hairdo – remember this is the staid hung-up 1950s. Our parents, our schools and the ‘establishment’ were still decrying our hair in the last years of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Imagine the public outrage (not too strong a word) in the 50s. Of course, the disapprobation of our elders only made sporting the coiffures more fun!

Although I have not looked at the stats I cannot imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, the Beatles – who actually opened some European concerts for Little Richard in 1962), besting his record of 17 hit singles in about four years circa 1955-1959. The man rocked and everyone into the new rock and roll knew it!

Penniman learned his chops in a manner similar to how many African American polymath performers learned theirs in the first half of the 20th century: first in church, then in vaudeville or traveling troups of performers. In his case it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. He joined in 1949 rather than enter 10th grade. Here he performed a variety of skits, sometimes in drag as Princess LaVonne, and learned to play what church-folk called ‘devil music’. He once said that Louis Jordan’s Caldonia was the first secular piece he ever played (“Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”) HISTORIC NOTE: The second(?) recording of this song was where the term “Rock and Roll” originated. It appeared in a Billboard Magazine review of Erskine Hawkins 1945 record: “right rhythmic rock and roll music”.) A year later Penniman joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra where his childhood nickname of Lil’ Richard was modified (he was quite small and had one leg shorter than the other.)

After a couple recording contracts with his records becoming popular in Georgia but not reaching a larger audience, Little Richard returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia doing menial labor and performing on the side. In 1955 the musician Lloyd Price (with whom my father worked) recommended Specialty Records, the label he recorded for, and Little Richard sent them a demo tape. Months passed with no call. Eventually Specialty’s producer heard Richard sing Tutti Fruiti during an impromtu set at a club – but had to hire another songwriter to clean up the sexual lyrics Little Richard had put to the song. Three takes in September led to a November release and the rest, as they say, is history!In June of 2007 the British music magazine Mojo, based on a survey of music artists (Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Pete Wentz, Steve Earle and others), listed Tutti Frutti as Number 1 in their “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World”.

SIDE NOTE: I almost did not include this mention as a decade ago Mojo moved to take over ownership of copyright of their writers and photographers work AND, at the same time, laid liability for libel and copyright infringement onto those same writers and photographers.


Adon Olam

Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם; “Eternal Master/Sovereign Who Reigns Supreme”) from traditional Jewish liturgy. It is usually attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058, the Golden Age of La Convivencia) but the actual pronunciation of the words points to a much earlier origin. The music in the video below is to the tune of “Happy” written by Pharrell Williams.

This joyful rendition provides an uplift at a time when memorial services are not possible amidst the dying from Covid-19. Tho I am secular now, it still spirits me to my youth when we were made to recite a version of the last stanza before bedtime: Into his hand I commit my spirit when I sleep and I awake and with my spirit, my body, The Lord is with me, I will not fear.

Many will have encountered Adon Olam in Ashkenazi services during Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre. When I lived in London it was, for me, a highlight of Sephardim services sung antiphonally to an old Spanish melody.

Adon Olam may also be read in a room of the dying and in some synagogues as a means of relaying a death in the community (spoken without the musical aid of a cantor.)

Given its ready universality and application throughout the centuries, many have created their own tune to accompany Adon Olam. In 1976 Uzi Hitman wrote what has become a quite popular secular version but the most common melody is probably the one attributed to Russian cantor Eliezar Mordecai ben Yitschak Gerovitsch (1844-1914). Dudu Fisher does a nice job with this as does the singer Fortuna. The group Sabbathsong, below, performs the tune with verve and an unbeatable clarinet!

Adon Olam with transliterated melody and lyrics
Adon Olam Sheet Music

Great Music #1

"Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach" CD
“Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” CD

A house is not a home when there’s no one there…

My rockin’ friends may laugh and poke fun accusing me of loving schmaltz with this post (“On the day you were born the angels made a dream come true.”) but I don’t care – and neither will those of you who listen to the music on this CD and the other music listed, below.

In 2003 Ronald Isley and Burt Bachrach teamed for the album Here I Am, a collection of Bachrach’s (mostly) 1960s tunes with Bachrach on piano led by Isley’s poignant, signature falsetto. Both Ronald Isley (Cincinnati, May 21, 1941) and Burt Freeman Bacharach (Kansas City, May 12, 1928) are American mid-westerners (yeh!)

Album:  Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach.

Artists: Ron Isley & Burt Bachrach (with many others in the orchestra)

Like most musicians who people believe pop out of nowhere, both Isley and Bachrach had a lot of road behind them when they entered mainstream consciousness. Bachrach studied with famed Darius Milhaud and was a music director for Marlene Dietrich from the mid-to-late 1950s to the early 1960s, touring worldwide and writing songs. When he had an office at the famed Brill Building in New York City he met the lyricist Hal David. Together they wrote many of the greatest popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s, performed to perfection by Dionne Warwick, one of the best selling female vocalist of all time, after Aretha. (And, oh… we all laughed but Warwick made US$3 million from plugging the Psychic Friends Network on late night TV for 7 years!) The Brill is still there and worth a visit if you’ve not passed by. It was home to music publishers and song-smiths including Bobby Darin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann, Gene Pitney, Johnny Mercer, Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, Billy Rose, Neil Sadaka and others who worked in small offices with upright pianos (according to my father.)

“Breaking up is so hard to do”

Ron Isley and brothers (variously O’Kelly, Ernie, Marvin, Rudolph) formed The Isley Brothers, an R&B group nonpareil. They made a hit of ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1962, beating the Beatles to the line (1963).

If you are a mid-period baby boomer you most certainly remember the 1971 album ‘Givin’ It Back’ featuring the songs ‘Ohio/Machine Gun’ (by Neil Young /Jimi Hendrix), ‘Fire and Rain’ (James Taylor), ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (Bob Dylan), ‘Spill the Wine’ (Miller, Scott and 5 others) and ‘Love the One You’re With’ (Stephen Stills). The recently deceased Bill Withers played guitar on that album!

Then in 1973 they released the album ‘3+3’ (‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’) with ‘That Lady’ (Isley Bros.), ‘Don’t Let me Be Lonely Tonight’ (James Taylor), and more.

When I was in grad school in London the parties the Africans threw were the most fun (check out Osibisa, the first ‘World Music’ group) but for atmosphere and romance one could pull the Isley Brothers in for tactical support. If you could not keep company for the dreary autumn nights with the assistance of the Isley Brothers you were beyond helping!

‘Be mine tonight, let this be just the start of so many nights like this… then seal it with a kiss.’

But I digress.

The CD ‘Here I Am’ with Bachrach will touch a chord with those of us who survived Vietnam, the war of our generation, and the drug- and alcohol-fueled gatherings that took so many of our peers. It is like listening with new (mature) ears.

Full orchestration is not always successful on pop and jazz recordings, think 1955’s ‘Clifford Brown with Strings’ with Brown, Richie Powell, George Morrow and Max Roach – reviewed as “lush settings by some and muzak by others”. However, ‘Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” is, to me, simply gorgeous; Bachrach did not lose his touch with his 1960s work with Warwick. Isley’s interpretations drop his ‘Mr. Biggs’ persona (much in evidence in his collaborations with R. Kelly) and meld tenderness, love, poignant loss, humility and romance all in one grand slow-motion sweep that will steam the bedroom windows.

Listening to ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ we are no longer in B.J. Thomas territory riding that bicycle with Katherin Ross in 1969’s ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ (the American Film Institute’s 73rd-greatest American film on its “100 Years…100 Movies”, 10th Anniversary Edition and 7th greatest Western (2008). Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen were all offered the role of Sundance by the by!)

(Ah… another recent loss: illustrator Mort Drucker (1929 – April 9, 2020) who drew movie parodies for MAD Magazine from 1956 to 2008 and did the pics for MAD Magazine’s ‘Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid’, Issue No. 136, July 1970.)

For the more visual among you, there was a PBS Special of these performances, too, that I have not seen.

Listen to this CD and you will be booking a site for a post Covid-19 renewal of your wedding vows!

P.S. For a great read on the relationship between the Isley family and Jimi Hendrix see: “Ernie Isley remembers Jimi Hendrix”. If I recall correctly, The Seattle Times article omits to report that the Isleys bought Jimi a new white Strat because they thought his (which was in hock, sans strings, at a pawn shop) was too tatty for their stage shows.

P.P.S. Dionne Warwick’s extended family is chock-a-block full of the musically and athletically talented. Blood relatives include Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston, Gary Garland, Bobbi Kristina Brown and Leontyne Price.

Listen to the Oldest (Discovered) Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

FROM: the web site Open Culture

World's Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn
World’s Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 1960s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” This, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.” Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

hear the song