031: The Beach Boys, ‘Little Saint Nick’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2014 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Yes, we’re early, but Song of The Week just couldn’t wait.

I live in the only non-Christian country in the Western world, so things are pretty normal out on the streets (well, ‘normal’ by local standards). It’s quite a shock for people who come from abroad to spend Yuletide here, how conspicuous it is in its absence. And take into account that I live about 85 kilometers (52 miles) from the original manger. That’s easily traversed on camel-back in two days.

As close as it is, it’s a rather foreign event here. But I grew up in a wholly Christian world, so I feel pretty comfortable about the whole thing, just a bit distanced from it. There have been years when I haven’t even noticed its passing beyond a mention or two on the local news. But this year I’ve been more attuned to the holiday season for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the great majority of SoTW readers abide in The Big World Out There. So I figured it would only be proper to dedicate this week’s posting to the good old red-and-green.

The world would be a poorer place without Christmas music. So much of our Western tradition revolves around it, from Liturgy’s Greatest Hits to Bob Dylan’s recent (some would say ‘bizarre’, others ‘unfortunate’ “Christmas in the Heart”). What is Christmas music for me? Well, of course, it’s Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. But there’s a lot of my high school Ensemble in there, too. We had a whole repertoire of holiday songs, many of which I can still sing through without blinking, and we’d perform every night in December, it seems.

So with such a wealth of riches, I had no easy task picking our SoTW. I had a harder job than good old King Solomon. He just had to pick between two mothers. I had to pick between three songs.

Just yesterday I received a link from my old friend A.B. I’m not going to discuss theology with him, but I sure do like his taste in music. He sent me “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, as performed by the Nordic Chamber Choir. I had never heard of any of the three. It’s a beautiful, spiritual, sacred motet, a cappella. Morten is a USC professor and 3-time Grammy nominee. And it turns out that he is currently “the most frequently performed American choral composer”. Well, how about that? Well, I’ve been away for a long time. Give a listen to that Nordic Choir. Just about perfect, I’d say.

But I said, heck, I just heard that today. I’m not going to go running around promoting a piece I just met today.

So then I asked myself, ‘Jeff, what’s the best song you know that talks about Christmas?’ No contest. Joni Mitchell’s ‘River‘. Song of The Week? No way. I’m not going to shoot my wad on Joni with the clock ticking, and I’m not going to choose one of her best-known songs when I do. But mostly, the song’s just so damn depressing, and I didn’t want to be in the position of disseminating non-holiday spirit.

So I ran a quick search through the musty catacombs of my brain, and one old buddy was just sitting there, polished all candy-apple red, grinning, waiting to be retrieved — The Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick“.

I’ve written before about The Beach Boys (SoTW 4, ‘Kiss Me Baby’, SoTW 118, ‘Surf’s Up’, SoTW 158, Paul Simon singing ‘Surfer Girl‘), and I was hesitant to repeat myself, especially with a song of theirs that speaks for itself (as opposed to the ones that I so quixotically champion in the face of universal indifference). But what the heck? Who can resist this ebullient hot-rod carol?

Just a little bobsled, we call it old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.

Now that’s holiday spirit.

So to our readers all over the world, from the whole staff of Song of The Week, y’all have a good holiday — everyone, everywhere.


If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)


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209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

Posted by jeff on Dec 12, 2014 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’

Margareta Bengtson

Margareta Bengtson

I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.

The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.

In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.

Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.

The Real Group then

The Real Group then

Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.

In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.

The Real Group now

The Real Group now

I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”


Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.

In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony.  A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.

Margareta Bengston

Margareta Bengston

And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.

Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.

Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.

Monica Zetterlund

Monica Zetterlund

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.

Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.

When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
The New A Cappella
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

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207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

Posted by jeff on Nov 28, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bob Dylan – ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’
The Beatles – ‘Rocky Raccoon’
Bob Dylan – ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

Rocky Raccoon

Rocky Raccoon

Y’all yung ‘uns won’t remember back when Dylan and Beatles fans occupied opposing camps – serious, mature, idealistic, deep thinkers vs teenybop consumers of pop pap.

March 1964 saw the release of ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’ and ‘All I Really Want to Do’, both ostensibly depicting His innocent desire to be near Her. They’re both lies. The Beatles were no more interested in dancing than Dylan was in being ‘just friends’. But this was 1964, and nether impulses had to be masked on the media. But the distance between the bland innocence of the one and the eye-winking leer of the other is most telling.

On the third hand, I listen to “Another Side Of” at least once every twenty years, whereas I revisit “Hard Day’s Night” once or twice a year. It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it. And I’m happy to just do that, apparently. (Me? I was never troubled by loyalties. I faithfully bought all the albums of both, and in 1966 had the good fortune to see both live in concert.)

Judas Priest

Judas Priest

One month later, in April 1964, Dylan met The Beatles and turned them on to marijuana for the very first time. How’dja like to have been a fly on that wall? The symbiosis grew exponentially in 1965 – John growing into ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ (“That’s me in my Dylan period”) and on to ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Girl’, Bob to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.

While the camps of fans were duking it out, the February 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” included Bob’s musical nod to John in ‘Fourth Time Around’, a reworking/parody/tribute to ‘Norwegian Wood’: late night, clueless Him in Lilith’s apartment, the seductress and the sucker.

The Jack of Hearts

The Jack of Hearts

During the 14 months that Dylan was reclused and recuperating from the motorcycle accident (and recording “The Basement Tapes”), The Fab Four were psychodelicating their jolly ways through ‘Strawberry Fields’, “Sgt. Pepper”, ‘I Am the Walrus’. In April, 1967, the same month “Magical Mystery Tour” was released, Dylan emerged transmogrified from leather-jackets/shaded/motorcycle speedist to strap-yourself-to-a-tree-with-roots, acoustic, organic, biblical Bob.

Perhaps the centerpiece on the masterpiece that is “John Wesley Harding” is the last cut on Side One (kids, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go listen to some of that post-music you’re into), ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, talking blues in format, breathtaking and kishke-wrenching in its wry wisdom, a post-psychedelic tour-de-force ramble through a landscape of profound nonsense. Alice in The Wasteland. Desolation Row the morning after – slower and wiser and almost coherent. If you don’t listen to it in conjunction with the liner notes from the album (‘There were three kings and a jolly three too’), you’re denying yourself one of the greatest pleasures of Dylandom.

Lily Russell - some images are better left to the imagination

Lily Russell – some images are better left to the imagination

Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ is hilarious, but don’t get caught laughing – it’s deadly serious. It’s profoundly funny. It’s way beyond laugh-inducing. Don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road. It’s comedy that deepens you and enwisens you.

With ‘Rocky Raccoon’, vive la différence, feel free to chuckle as much as you want.

Rocky Raccoon’ is Paul McCartney’s unabashed homage to Dylan, complete with faux Minnesota (in itself faux Oklahoma) accent, John Wayne vocabulary, Dylan harmonica and honky-tonk (George Martin) piano. It’s a Liverpudlian version of a John Ford Western, cute and clever in its own write. You might ask if the world is significantly enriched by it. Well, compared to ‘Frankie Lee’, no. But if all music were held to that standard, iTunes would be forced to close. A reporter once asked McCartney if “The Beatles” really contained enough first-rate material to warrant a double album. “Man, it’s the fucking White Album!” McCartney replied, justifiably indignant. Yeah, it contains ‘Revolution 9’ and ‘Yer Blues’, but here we are writing about it almost 50 years later. And happy just to dance to it.

Lennon, McCartney 1968

Lennon, McCartney 1968

I’d like to pause a moment here to brag about the one little piece of Beatle Trivia I think I’m the only person in the world to note – the first line in my obituary, I assume. At 2:52, there’s a backing vocal phrase, and if you listen closely several thousand times (it helps if you’re 20, girlfriendless and stoned), you’ll hear that they’re saying some well-hidden words. I used to think it’s ‘Nobody knows’. Now, listening to the remastered version, it sounds like ‘Oh, Bobby, oh.’ In any case, there are now armies of Beatlicians out there to whom the mantle of obsession has passed. Let them work it out. It’s just a shame that the ‘Paul is Dead’ crowd didn’t have it as fodder.

Dylan 1968

Dylan 1968

If you care about ‘Rocky Raccoon’ more than I do, you can listen to the early acoustic demo version (the ‘Esher demos’), or this Take 8 including Paul’s ‘sminking’ gaff, and his attempts at improvising lyrics. If you’re really dangerously lonely, you can even watch this 1972 filmic version of the song.

But the story doesn’t end with Rocky’s revival/survival.

A full seven years later, in a different eon culturally, Dylan responded (to Paul’s response to ‘Frankie Lee’) in his other opus magnum “Blood on the Tracks” with his own narrative of a gunfight in a Wild West saloon, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’.

The story is about the elusive, dashing rogue bandit (the Jack) robbing the safe of his rival Big Jim (‘he owned the town’s only diamond mine); and the ambivalent loyalties of Jim’s gilded-caged wife Rosemary and his saloon singer paramour Lily. It patently lacks a coherent narrative, but is so intriguingly sketchy that you keep going back, your mind grasping to tie together the riveting narrative details.

Lennon, DylanThe official (Minnesota) version is 15 verses long, the significantly superior NY version adds a verse (‘Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch’) after the 11th. There’s an oblique reference to historical figures Diamond Jim Brady and his sometimes romantic partner, Lillian Russell.

Paul Raccoon

Paul Raccoon

Two screenplays were written on the song, one commissioned by Dylan. Neither made it to film. Even the Kingston Trio’s ‘Tom Dooley’ and Bobby Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ (both country gothic tragedies with evocative lacunae in the narrative),  got filmed. Much the better for Lily and her gang. Some stories are better left unfilmed, some details better left to the imagination. Are we enriched by ‘Rocky Raccoon’? Some questions are better left unasked. After all, it’s the fucking ‘White Album’. What is for sure is that The Beatles profoundly informed and inspired Dylan. Without them, there would have been no ‘Frankie Lee’, ‘Lily, Rosemary’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And without Dylan, there would have been no ‘Norwegian Wood’ or ‘Day in the Life’ or ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

While the camps of fans were bickering, Dylan and The Beatles were busy inspiring each other, usually through the overall growth of the aesthetic of that golden age, but occasionally in a pas de deux, a game of ping pong between the greatest artists of our times.

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039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’

Posted by jeff on Nov 20, 2014 in Other, Song Of the week

I’m not a big fan of authentic blues, and certainly less of an expert. The closest to a real bluesman I listen to is Bo Diddley, and even I don’t confuse him and the real thing. The only really authentic gent I listen to on my own volition is Robert Johnson, who actually is a lot of fun. But this week we’re going to introduce you to Blind Willie Johnson, his music, and his strange, sad life. And even if his music isn’t your cup of moonshine, I’ll betcha the story won’t leave you unmoved.

This is the only known photograph of him, and it seems there’s not a single confirmable fact about Willie’s life. But this is what I’ve pieced together.

He was born near Brenham, Texas, which is outside of Temple, Texas (which is outside of Waco, Texas) somewhere around 1902. His mother died when he was just a li’l ‘un, and his pappy remarried.

When he was about seven, his father was altercating on his stepmother for stepping out with another man. She in response threw lye into Willie’s face (either by accident or on purpose, depending on the account you’re reading).

All the accounts I’ve found say that Willie told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then built himself a guitar out of a cigar box. I’m not quite clear just what the connection is there, but apparently there is one.

His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. I guess that’s where he developed his chops. Mean streets, Brenham.



Willie was ‘married’ once or twice (not quite clear to me what constituted marriage in those parts), maybe to Willie B Harris and/or maybe to Angline Robinson. One of them is the lady singing with him on many of the 30 songs he recorded.

He was dirt poor throughout his poor, short life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas (that’s outside of Lake Charles LA, Port Arthur, and Galveston). A real outsider, that Blind Willie.

In 1945, the house of prayer he preached from and lived in burned to the ground. So destitute he had nowhere to go, he lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a rain-soaked bed. After two weeks, he caught pneumonia and died (although the death certificate credited malarial fever and syphilis for contributing to the effort).

There are reports that his grave has recently been located, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of that.

Blind Willie is considered to be one of the great slide guitarists of his time. According to some reports, he used his knife for a slide rather than the customary bottleneck. He used an open tuning in D, sliding that knife and plucking a bass line with his thumb. Most of his songs had ostensibly religious themes (like ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God‘), but they clearly owed as much to country blues. He often doubles the melody he’s singing on the guitar, and he uses octaves a lot–on the guitar, singing, the second voice.

The Blues

The Blues

He recorded four or five times, between 1927 and 1930, a total of 30 songs. My favorite song, and his best known one, is from the first session, December 3, 1927. It’s called ‘Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground’. It’s got no words, but I think you’ll agree it doesn’t need any. It’s about as harrowing and eloquent as can be just as is.

It’s been recorded by everyone who’s anyone in the blues. But my favorite cover is by the avant garde group, the Kronos String Quartet.

Our Song of The Week is from the same session, Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’. Ain’t that the Lord’s truth!

Why’d we pick this one? So that we could dedicate this week’s SoTW to our loving wife, who knows just as well as Blind Willie Johnson, albeit from a different vantage point, just how dear a mother’s love can be.

Well, well, well, ah
A motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time
Nobody on earth can take a mother’s place when, when mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place when, mother’s dead
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place,
when you were startin’, paved the way
Nobody treats you like mother will when
Your wife or husband may be good to you, when mother is dead, Lord
They’ll be good to you, mother’s dead
A wife or a husband may be good to you,
but, better than nothing has proved untrue
Nobody treats you like mother will when, when mother is dead, Lord
Lord, Lord, Lord
Yeah, well, ah
Well, some people say that sister will do, when mother is dead
That sister will do when mother’s dead
Some people say that sister will do,
but, as soon as she’s married, she turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like mother will
And father will do the best he can, when mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can when mother is dead
Father will do the best he can,
so many things a father can’t understand
Nobody treats you like mother will
A motherless children have a hard time, when mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time

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