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149: Antony & the Johnsons: ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’

Posted by jeff on Feb 14, 2019 in Other, Song Of the week

Antony & the Johnsons — ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’

Antony & the Johnsons — ‘Cut the World’ (video) Caution: Disconcerting content.

Within each of us is both the bully and the victim.

You see someone, on hir knees, crying from pain. You walk past. Or you snicker. Or you throw something. Or you tie hir to a fence and beat hir to death. Or you stop and open your heart and and through hir pain embrace your own pain. And perhaps you feel just a bit more in harmony with your own personal universe.

It’s too easy to guffaw at Antony Hegarty (b. 1971) – his ‘questionable sexuality’, his naked candor, his queerness – a British>Californian transsexual who creates  minimalist art vignettes of pain and death and spirit and the universe as Antony & the Johnsons.

Art isn’t created by adhering to conventions, and Hegarty is an artist to be reckoned with. Since 2001 he has composed a heavenly host of ephemeral miniatures, which he plays on piano accompanied by a small string section, singing in the tremulous voice of a tortured angel. Each song is a prayer.

He can wrench you in a straightforward love song, such as ‘Hope There’s Someone’, or in a cover of a hackneyed contemporary standard, such as ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ or even ‘Imagine’.

But more frequently he moves in liminal, harrowing climes, such as in ‘Cut the World’.

For so long I’ve obeyed that feminine decree/I’ve always contained your desire to hurt me/But when will I turn and cut the world?//My eyes are coral, absorbing your dreams/My skin is a surface to push to extremes/My heart is a record of dangerous scenes/But when will I turn and cut the world?

From the video ‘Cut the World’, directed by Nabil, starring Willem Dafoeand Carice van Houten. The person at the end of the video is performance artist Marina Abramović.

‘Cut the World’ is the one new song on his brand-new CD of the same name, a collection of his ‘greatest hits’ (‘I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy’, ‘Cripple and the Starfish’), lushly accompanied by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra (oh, those great Danes!). This video is a horrifying harbinger of his vision of matriarchal systems of government overthrowing the world.

Be forewarned: this video is seriously disconcerting. It’s not for everyone, watch it only if you’re feeling very strong. Or very weak. I’m not going to comment on it — you don’t need me to explain the obvious, and I can’t explain the mysterious.

From his monologue ‘Future Feminism’: “I’ve been thinking all day about the moon. Is it an accident that women menstruate once a month and that the moon comes once a month? We’re made of 70% water. The whole ocean reacts to the full moon. I must be having a homeopathic relationship with the changing cycles of the moon. I’m made out of this place…The world menstruates.”

One of his most indelible creations is the perplexing ‘The Spirit Was Gone’. The video portrays a dance in the style of Butoh, an avant garde post-WWII Japanese performance aesthetic, often danced ultra-slowly in a sparse, grotesque setting in white makeup. One of the founders was Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010!!!), a captain in Hirohito’s army, a Baptist, and a gym teacher at a girls’ high school till the age of 86. In his 90s, unable to walk, he continued performing – moving only his hands. His picture is on the cover of Antony’s finest CD, “The Crying Light”. The dancer in this video is Kazuo Ohno’s son, Yoshito.

The spirit was gone from her body/Forever had always been inside/That shell had always been intertwined/And now were disentwined/It’s hard to understand.

If you’ve gotten this far, I assume you’re not laughing.

Antony and the Johnsons is a wonderful example of just how effective minimalism can be in genres as ranging far as contemporary classical music, trance, architecture, design, art. I discussed minimalism as an aesthetic in SoTW 086, Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’.

In Hegarty’s work, less is so clearly more. The power of his songs and videos derives from the strength of the visuals, the directness of the passion, and the restraint in presenting them devoid of any distractions. He stares unflinchingly into the eye of his own soul; and, if you allow it, into yours.

For our Song of The Week then, let’s unflinchingly choose one of his more challenging pieces, ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’, a subjective portrayal of an epileptic seizure. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, one of my favorite authors, describes some epileptic seizures as inducing “the flow of involuntary ‘reminiscence,’ the sense of revelation, and the strange, half-mystical ‘dreamy state’ that could be characteristic of these.” “Epilepsy is often associated with religious or mystical feeling.”

Epilepsy is dancing/She’s the Christ now departing/And I’m finding my rhythm/As I twist in the snow//Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner/Ooh now, it’s passing/Ooh now, I’m dancing

Here’s the video of ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’. If I were going to have a religious epiphany, I hope it wouldn’t include cavorting gay satyrs and nymphs, but who knows what subconscious party favors he/she harbors within? Antony says he’s been thinking in terms of ‘molecular crystal formations’. I have no idea what that means. He gave a concert in Manchester in which the concert hall was transformed into a crystal cave filled with laser effects, and I’m truly sorry I missed that one.

But when he sings “Cut me in quadrants, leave me in the corner”, that I do get. It’s not a comfortable place, but it’s a very real one. I don’t listen to Antony and the Johnsons every day. But when I do, I sure don’t laugh.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)
110: Mongolian Throat Singing (The Occidental Tourist)

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291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Posted by jeff on Feb 8, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Happy Valentine’s Day?

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not here to sell you a designer box of little wrapped chocolates for $74.49 or a dozen long-stemmed roses for a sum that could feed an Indian village for a decade.

I grew up in a United States where stores were closed on Sundays and Valentine’s Day meant handing out handmade cards to The Ones You Liked in your fifth grade class (a crash course in heartbreak for 10-year olds), just before the country was insidiously and invidiously invaded by The Corporate Commercial Machine! Up against the wall, motherfuckers!!!

Valentine’s Day Massacre

If this Hallmark unholiday serves as a reminder to be especially appreciative of the one you love, I’m all for it. But y’all should know there’s a pretty harsh reality lurking beneath the pink wrapping paper, ready to bite us, as James Taylor so beautifully reminds us in this ostensibly modest little ‘pretty song’ from his 1988 album “Never Die Young”.

It’s James’ 12th studio album over 20 years, arguably the last of his great ones. In SoTW 56, ‘Secret o’ Life’, I soapboxed against the myriads of fans of James’ greatest hits. “To think that James Taylor is ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘Fire and Rain’ is like thinking that The Beatles are ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ or Dylan is ‘Blowing in the Wind’.” In SoTW 112 I explained why I think James Taylor’s version of “Yesterday” is immeasurably superior to that of McCartney.” In SoTW 139, James celebrates mature love ‘On the 4th of July’. And in SoTW 205 I explain why James’ first album is so profound to me. In SoTW 132, James and I mourned the passing of a sibling in ‘Enough to be on Your Way.And in SoTW 46 I explained why the title song of “Never Die Young” speaks so deeply to me about the arc of my life.

I’m a big fan.

‘Valentine’s Day’ is an unusual song for James—all piano (Don Grolnick), with some lovely help from bassist Jay Leonhart (plucked and bowed) and the great violinist Mark O’Connor. No guitar whatsoever. If you see somewhere on the infallible World Wide Web (“But it’s written!”) that the song was penned by Hollywood composer John Debney, it’s an untruth. He scored the movie “Valentine’s Day”, but this song is all James.

Valentine’s Day Massacre

For all of its ostensible pink sweetness, the song is bitterly ironic, an extended comparison of a couple’s relationship to the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which four members of Al Capone’s Italian gang (two disguised as policemen) machinegunned seven members of Bugs Malone’s Irish gang in a Chicago garage in a turf war over control of the bootleg market.

Police tried to question survivor Frank Gusenberg as to who shot him. Gusenberg, with fourteen bullets in him, replied “No one shot me.” He died three hours later.

The event was recreated in Howard Hawks’ 1932 movie “Scarface” starring Paul Muni, and subsequently in a dozen more screen treatments. Here’s a medley of those scenes (best not to show this to your Significant Other while presenting the chocolates and flowers). Of course we all recognize the same themes throughout the entire gangster (as opposed to Gangsta) genre (see “The Godfather”, “The Sopranos”, et al).

The first verse is piano and James’ voice. “Beneath the tide the fishes glide/Fin to fin and side to side/For fishy love has now begun/Fishy love, finny fun.” Jabberwocky? Denizens of the deep fishily swimming around some bodies ‘sleeping with the fishes’?

The second verse sets the scene. ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ is a 1933 song written by Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Billy Rose, so associated with the Great Depression that when Peter Bogdanovich asked his mentor Orson Welles if it was a suitable title for his movie, Welles responded “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” Here’s James singing it himself.

The third verse provides some less rosy coloring: Bootleg gin — I don’t really need to explain that, do I? The porkpie hat was all the rage during the depression, even though Muni was wearing a fedora in the film. ‘Dew Drop Inn’ was a corny name for a restaurant way back when—there was a film by that name from 1919 and a musical from 1923. “You dirty rat”? Depression-era gangster meme from James Cagney’s 1932 film “Taxi!”. Cupid’s dart? Check out this image from a speed dating ad. Ouch. What have we wrought?

The tone gets more ominous in verse four – “Day to repay the one that you love”. Oh, isn’t that a cute little threat? I wonder what was going through the minds of those seven cronies of Bugs Malone as they were lined up against the wall. ‘Take off your hats’—how many movies have we seen in which the gangsters remove their hats at the funeral of a person they’ve just had laid to rest? Boxing was of course the sport of the Depression/gangster world. Going a few rounds without gloves—with what, then? Machine guns? Bare fists? Fingernails? Those awful words that we speak when we’re in a vicious, bloody argument with our own dear Valentine?

Fifth round. I mean, verse. “Land your punch, I stand my ground/We break for lunch and a second round.” Wow, what a couplet. Could there be a more precise, incisive description of how a couple argues to the death? You might have to go back to Ingmar Bergman to find one.

Or think of all the times when the bell’s finally rung on your gut-wrenching argument with your beloved and you walk away – finally – and you or she slams a door or drops a dictionary or a whatever, to get in the last word. Nothing like that last little jab after the bell has rung, right?

Oh, no similarity between love and boxing at all is there? The biggest difference being that in love all bouts go the full 15 rounds and always end in a bloody draw.

Last verse, last man standing. “We keep score”. Oh, sure. We tally the points, to be absolutely clear how badly both of us are losing. “Love as war.” All of us who have been in a serious relationship have experienced our own domestic siege of Leningrad.

So let’s all try to learn a lesson from James’ beautiful, witty, disarmingly simple but painfully accurate portrayal of how we so frequently most hurt the one we most love. Forget the chocolates and flowers. Let’s remember that no one wins in a war. And that Prohibition is long gone. Let’s use this day to remind ourselves to be decent, patient, loving partners.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Beneath the tide the fishes glide
Fin to fin and side to side
For fishy love has now begun
Fishy love, finny fun

Paper moon, paper heart
Pink balloon, work of art
Al Capone, Bugs Moran
Valentine’s Day

Bootleg gin, porkpie hat
Dew Drop Inn, dirty rat
Through the heart, cupid’s dart
Valentine’s da

Day to repay the one that you love
Gentlemen take off your hats as I speak thereof
Just a brief break from the push and the shove
We may go a few rounds without boxing gloves

Land your punch, I stand my ground
We break for lunch and a second round
We set them up, we knock them down
Valentine’s Day

Me and you, you and him
Him and her, us and them
We keep score, love as war
Valentine’s Day

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148: Andy Williams, ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’

Posted by jeff on Jan 31, 2019 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Andy Williams — Days Of Wine And Roses
Andy Williams – Moon River
Henry Mancini — Days of Wines and Roses
Henry Mancini — Moon River

Remember good old Andy Williams? What does he conjure up for you? For me it’s:

He was a cool, suave nightclub entertainer. No one would confuse him with an artist, but he sold about three bejillion albums, had a weekly network variety show for nine years, hosted the Grammies, starred in Las Vegas, and stood by his ex-wife Claudine Longet after she shot and killed a ski racing champion in Aspen.

He’s of course best known for singing the emblematic (but not the original) version of ‘Moon River’, written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the Blake Edwards film ““Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). Audrey Hepburn herself sang the original version in the movie, playing the guitar on the fire escape. It was quickly covered (in order) by Danny Williams (#1 in England), Jerry Butler (#11 in the US), Mancini himself (#11 in the US), and half a dozen others before Andy got to it a year later, releasing it not as a single but on his megahit album “Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes.” After he sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards, “Moon River” and Andy Williams became inextricably identified with each other.

I don’t care who likes it, and I don’t care how much of a snob you accuse me of being, it is a beautiful song.

LtoR: Holly Golightly, Guitar

Lyricist Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), great-grandson of a Confederate general, grew up in Savannah playing with the children of the family’s black servants and listening to their music and dialect. He collaborated with Hoagy Carmichael in Hollywood, married a Jewish chorus girl over his family’s objections, had a couple of intense affairs with Judy Garland, couldn’t handle his liquor in the Bing Crosby crowd, co-founded Capitol Records, and along the way wrote lyrics for 1500 songs including ‘I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande’, ‘Too Marvelous for Words’, ‘You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby’, ‘Day In, Day Out’, ’Fools Rush In’, ‘Jeepers Creepers’, ’That Old Black Magic’, ’Come Rain Or Come Shine’, ’Skylark ’, ’Laura ’, ’Satin Doll’, and ’Autumn Leaves’. Gosh.

Composer/arranger Henry Mancini (1924-1994) started out as a pianist/arranger for the Glen Miller orchestra, then moved to Hollywood to compose scores for epics such as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “It Came from Outer Space”, “Tarantula”, “This Island Earth”, and “The Glenn Miller Story” (for which he received his first Academy Award nomination.

LtoR: Mancini, Mercer, Oscar

He hit his creative peak in the late 1950s/early 1960s in both television and films, with a series of indelible hits:  the theme from Blake Edwards’ series “Peter Gunn”, with a riff as iconic as ‘Satisfaction’; ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ from the Howard Hawks/John Wayne film “Hatari!”; and of course the ‘Theme from The Pink Panther’.

But it’s not ‘Moon River’ for which I’d like to remember Andy Williams (and Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer). That would be too obvious, right? It’s the theme song from another Blake Edwards’ 1962 movie, “The Days of Wine and Roses”. Mancini’s version from the soundtrack was the original version (#33), followed by Perry Como and a host of others before Andy got to it a year later (#26, #1 album).

Baby Elephant Walk

Here’s Mancini paying tribute to Johnny Mercer in 1987, accompanying Andy Williams on ‘The Days of Wine and Roses’ and on ‘Moon River’.

The movie is a drama in black and white, but very grey throughout, about an attractive young middle class couple’s descent into alcoholism. Both Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick were nominated for Oscars. It’s an excellent, profoundly depressing movie, and the theme song never fails to evoke in me an acute sense of waste and loss.

The title of the movie is taken from a poem by British poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), an early cohort of W.B. Yeats. When he was 23, he fell hopelessly in love with the 11-year old daughter of a Polish restaurant owner.

Wino Poet Dowson

When she married a tailor tenant of her father’s (8 years later), Dowson wrote these lines: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,/Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,/Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind”. Brokenhearted, he drowned himself in the bottle and died at 32, a penniless wino. His poem “Vitae Summa Brevis” contains the lines “They are not long, the days of wine and roses:/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream.”

Johnny Mercer reworked that into the lyric Andy Williams sings so simply and convincingly:

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked “nevermore” that wasn’t there before

The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.

LtoR: Rose, Wine

Bill Evans, no stranger to addictions himself, played the song frequently with his last trio in the final year of his life, when he was acutely aware of his approaching demise. Strangely, he treats the song lightly, upbeat and jaunty. I’ll be darned if I understand the logic there. Bill made some strange repertoire choices throughout his career – ‘The Theme from Spartacus’, ‘Theme from the Carpetbaggers’, ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. He employs ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ as an extended show-piece, including bass and drum solos. With all the passion in that song, he tosses it off. Go figure.

Well, I guess addiction eventually takes its toll even on great artists. Inspiration and perspiration. No one’s accusing Andy Williams (or Henry Mancini or even Johnny Mercer) of being great artists. But you’ll have look far and wide to find a song as touching as Andy Williams’ rendition of ‘The Days of Wine and Roses.’

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13

145: Peter, Paul & Mary, ‘Early Morning Rain’

Posted by jeff on Jan 23, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Peter, Paul & Mary — ‘Early Morning Rain’ (studio version)
Peter, Paul & Mary — ‘Early Morning Rain’ (live video) 

Darkened hall, packed auditorium, electric anticipation. The audience already begins to applaud as a silhouette, guitar in hand, jogs to the mike. Entering the pin spot at center stage, in dark suit and tie, with trademark hipster Van Dyke beard, he leans in and says in his firm, passionate tenor, “Hi, I’m Peter, but I’m no saint.”

The crowd roars and laughs and applauds as the second figure, also with guitar, moves through the dark into the spotlight– just like the first, only lanky and sweet, he twinkles in his resonant baritone, “Hi, I’m Paul, and I’m no saint.”

The laughter and applause swell as the third figure steps quickly through the dark, leans into the spotlight with her familiar, husky alto and the best hair of the entire decade, “Hi, I’m Mary , and I’m no virgin.”

And they launched into a powerful, upbeat, soul-stirring anthem of freedom and dignity and justice, based on a spiritual or a Woodie Guthrie ‘standard’ or a cosmic Dylan diatribe, the ink still wet, sung in the sweetest three-part harmony you’ve ever heard, supported only by the two nylon-string guitars and double bass in the background. Three voices, two guitars, a singular presence – Peter, Paul & Mary.

PP&M’s stature can’t be overstressed. After Dylan and The Beatles, they were one of the most important voices of the 1960s – artistically, commercially and historically. Somehow, they seemed to have slipped somewhat from the public eye and ear. So let’s give them a most-deserved nod this week. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when A Song was A Song, when beautiful was beautiful, when the passion for justice put artists on the Top 40 charts – as Dylan put it so evocatively, “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.”

L to R: Yarrow, Travers, Stookey (©Michael Ochs)

In the late 1940s, ‘folk music’ had a brief flowering through voices such as The Weavers with Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, and others. But they were radical leftists, and it was an Eisenhower world. The Weavers were blacklisted, and Guthrie fell fatally ill. Folk music went underground throughout the 1950s; Greenwich Village was almost the only vibrant enclave, the only faint commercial flicker came from voices such as Harry Belafonte. In the late 1950s, a spontaneous renaissance began. The radio started playing music by groups such as the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, and the Highwaymen. Tiny clubs in the Village hosted aspiring young less commercial singers such as Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (and standup artists such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce). Twenty-year old Bob Zimmerman made a pilgrimage from Minnesota to Woody Guthrie’s

L to R: Travers, Zimmerman

deathbed in January, 1961 and settled into the Village scene. David Hajdu’s fine book “Positively 4th Street” chronicles the early days of Dylan, the Baez sisters and the legendary writer/singer Richard Fariña. Joan Baez became the darling of the scene in 1961. Folk music became the soundtrack of the Kennedy era and the Civil Rights movement. Network TV offered a weekly show, “Hootenany”, that ran for a year and a half.  Christopher Guest’s mockumentary film “A Mighty Wind” portrays a fictional reunion tribute to the ‘grand old man’ of the folk music movement; it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

L to R: Yarrow, Dylan, John Hammond, 1965 (© Daniel Kramer)

But at the center of it all was Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1961, agent/opportunist supreme Albert Grossman identified the niche, and suggested to three denizens of the disheveled scene in the Village to try their hand at trio singing. Peter Yarrow (b. 1938), Mary Travers (1936-2009) and Noel Stookey (b. 1937) had nothing better to do with their days, and readily agreed. But these weren’t The Monkees. They spent seven months diligently rehearsing in Mary’s apartment.

Their first album (March 1962) was in the Billboard Top Ten for 10 months, including seven weeks at #1, and garnered them two Grammies. It contained ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ (both written by Seeger), which on the one hand perfectly embodied the optimistic, idealistic middle-class zeitgeist of the Kennedy era (the Civil Rights movement), but were not yet perceived as provocatively anti-establishment (the Vietnam war still lay around the corner). Their second album contained ‘Puff (the Magic Dragon)’ (written by Yarrow) and Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’.  It stayed on the charts for 99 weeks!

L to R: Dylan, Baez, Stooky, warming up for The Great March (© Dan Budnik)

They sang pretty. Kids were listening to pop pap, the folks to Sinatra. But everyone loved Peter, Paul & Mary.

Their musicality is impressive today – the vocals, the accompaniment, the uniformly excellent repertoire. They were handsome and beautiful and intelligent and nice people, and funny and politically committed with just the right politics. But they also had dignity (they wore ties, they spoke with intelligent earnestness) and gravitas (all three were committed activists on-stage and off- throughout their careers and lives). You didn’t just listen to their music, you paid attention. And you sang along, with gusto and sincerity.

Their niceness can’t be stressed too much. I had the opportunity to interview them twice in the latter 1960s. They were genuinely warm, refined, articulate humans, all three. I also had the opportunity to work with them at a political rally for Ohio senatorial candidate John Gilligan, where they came to lend their support together with Paul Newman and Eugene McCarthy. (Gilligan lost the election, but the day turned out pretty well for all of us: He eventually became governor, as did his daughter Kathleen Sebelius; Peter eventually married Gene’s daughter, and Paul would write ‘The Wedding Song (There is Love)’ for their wedding; I still brag to people about having met Paul Newman, about how short he was and how blue his eyes were.)

But the best was yet to come. In August, 1963, 250,000 people stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, at the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’, one of the largest and most important political rallies in American history. Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (the whole speech, the famous part). Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and a brand-new song by an unknown songwriter named Bob Dylan, ‘Blowing in the Wind’.

Their 3rd album, “In the Wind” (October, 1963, one month before the Kennedy assassination, four months before The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show), included Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)’ and ‘Blowing in the Wind’. The single sold three hundred thousand copies in the first week of release. It also boasted an interesting poem/liner notes by Dylan, describing those early days in the Village. which end:
The rooster never crowed on MacDougal Street-/There was no dew on the grass an the sun never came shinin/over the mountain-/There was nothin t tell yuh it was morning cept the/pins and needles feelin in yer arms an legs from stayin/up all nite-/But all ‘f us find our way a knowing when it’s mornin-/An once yuh know the feelin it don’t change-/It can only grow-/For Peter’s grown/An Paul’s grown/An Mary’s grown/An the times’ve grown.

You young ‘uns may not know this, but these two recordings introduced Dylan to the world. It took years for him to get traction as a singer — no one (except weirdos like me) wanted to listen to him. “Yeah, he writes good songs, but I can’t take that voice.” Columbia Records resorted to the marketing slogan “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.” It didn’t help. Commercially, he was a back-bencher for years. What people wanted to hear was PP&M singing Dylan.

Ed Sullivan, The Fab Four, The Thrilling Three

But then in the middle of the decade, the British invaded the US and the US invaded Vietnam, and the tone and temperament of the times were a-changing. The folk music movement ground to a halt. PP&M were the only survivors. They continued to record and perform, embraced both by the anti-war activists and their parents. The 1964 double LP “In Concert” (including ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and the hilarious Stookey standup ‘Paultalk’) was a major success. They toured at a frantic pace to full houses around the world.

(On the right here you can see a photo by my friend Rod Pennington; you can see 45 of his great pictures of PP&M from a couple of their visits to our neck of the woods here)

Photo by Rod Pennington

Then from 1965–1967 came a series of four consensus albums (“A Song Will Rise”, “See What Tomorrow Brings”, “Album” and “Album 1700”), successfully balancing traditional materials, political ‘protest’ songs, and a remarkable series of discoveries of unknown or little-known singer-songwriters: Laura Nyro (‘And When I Die’, an inspiring reflection on life written when Laura was but 16!), Gordon Lightfoot (‘For Loving Me’ and our SoTW, ‘Early Morning Rain’), Ewan MacColl (‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’), Tom Paxton (‘The Last Thing on My Mind’), Fred Neil (‘Another Side to This Life’), Richard Farina (‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’), and John Denver (the mega-hit ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’). That is a quite a list of songs they coined as standards. In addition, they began penning some memorable songs themselves (‘The Good Times We Had’, ‘The House Song’, ‘The Great Mandala’, ‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’, ‘If I Had Wings’, ‘The Song is Love’, my much-beloved ‘Whatshername’).
By the late 1960s they had run out of steam. They continued to tour and perform and work for causes and appear at rallies and demonstrations, but their recordings lost their sparkle. In 1970, by mutual consent, they went on ‘sabbatical’.  They never argued; they were just bushed. Over the ensuing years, they reunited for an annual Christmas concert and various causes and received all the awards you can think of. They remained on good terms throughout. Mary Travers died in 2009 of leukemia.

My personal legacy from Peter, Paul & Mary is great. I didn’t just own all their albums. I knew every note of Paul’s bass harmonies by heart. I could intuit his part on songs they had never sung. He was a teacher for me, not just for bass harmonies, but also as a paragon of gentleness and religious sincerity (he’s a practicing Christian). I admit that I don’t listen to their music too often; most of it I have committed to memory.

But one song has always been especially near and dear for me, their treatment of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’. It’s one of those very few songs that without fail touch me in the deepest place. I can be pitching for the NY Yankees in the 7th game of the World Series–PP&M’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ goes through my mind, and I’m transported to a very distant, specific, place: 4 AM, soaked and cold, aching from a lack of sleep and a broken heart, looking up at a jet plane flying overhead.

Gordon Lightfoot (b. 1938) was a Canadian paleface singer-songwriter without a recording contract when PP&M recorded his two most famous songs (here are his originals of ‘For Loving Me’ and ‘Early Morning Rain’). They weren’t the only ones to record Gordon in those days, or even the first, but they made the iconic versions. ‘Early Morning Rain’ is a gift PP&M have been sharing with me for 45 years now, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share it onwards.

In the early morning rain, with a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart and my pockets full of sand
I’m a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so
In the early morning rain with no place to go

Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go
But I’m stuck here on the ground where the cold winds blow
Well the liquor tasted good and the women were all fast
There she goes my friend, o she’s rolling now at last

Here the mighty engines roar, see the silver bird on high
She’s away and westward bound, high above the clouds she’ll fly
Where the early rain don’t fall and the sun always shines
She’ll be flying o’er my home in about three hours time

This old airport’s got me down, it’s no earthly use to me
Cause I’m stuck here on the ground, cold and drunk as I might be
You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
So I’d best be on my way in the early morning rain

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