044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Posted by jeff on Mar 25, 2015 in Other, Song Of the week

Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Slaves in Mea Shearim

Well, Passover is just around the corner, and She Who Must Be Obeyed is busy polishing the wine cups and sterilizing the corkscrew. She’s given me a few minutes off from helping for good behavior (actually, for gross incompetence), so I’ll try to squeeze in a few appropriate words on the music of the season.


I can’t complain about the spring cleaning tasks. Well, I can, but I shouldn’t. Not when I think back to my forefathers, and the travails they underwent at the hands of Ol’ Pharoah. I know just how bad they had it, thanks to the moving description of those hardships by our soul brethren, the African-Americans who created the spirituals. Slaves were forced to go to church and sit on benches, to quell any ecstatic impulses they might still have from their native African worship. Shackled spiritually as well as physically, they were resourceful enough to create a lasting body of music which jumbled up their old religion and music with the new ones their European masters were imposing on them, resulting in songs of faith which expressed all the suffering and indignity they were living, albeit couched in thinly veiled Bible stories.

Paul Robeson’s (1898-1976) is a remarkable story by any standards. His mother died when he was six, so he was raised by his father, an escaped slave who graduated college and served as minister of a Presbytarian church in Princeton, NJ until his politics got him fired. Robeson was the only black at Rutgers University, class valedictorian, and All-American football player. He put himself through Columbia law school by playing professional football and basketball. In his spare time, he starred in a play which played in New York and London.

Slaves in America

He married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, a descendent of slaves and Sephardic Jews, a graduate of Columbia in chemistry. She passed on medical school to manage her husband’s business affairs. His other affairs she also learned to manage to live with, as they practiced an ‘open marriage’ until her death in 1965.

After Robeson quit his NY law firm (because a secretary refused to take dictation from a black man), his interests turned to the stage. He was the first to bring spirituals to the concert stage, and starred in plays by Eugene O’Neil and the original version of Porgy and Bess. In 1930 he went to London to play Othello (because no American stage company would employ him–although later, from 1943-45, his Othello became the longest running Shakespeare production on Broadway to this day).

He also sang ‘Ol’ Man River‘ in the immensely popular Broadway musical and movie “Showboat”. It was written for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (neither of whom were particularly black, but both of whom had slavery hard-wired in their cultural heritage). The song has become one of the definitive expressions of black suffering. Robeson later changed the lyrics to transform the song from a lament to an expression of defiance.

Paul Robeson

In the 1930s and 1940s he was a star, performing spirituals in concerts throughout the world. But he also became radicalized politically, actively supported causes as wide-ranging as labor unions, the fight of the Republicans against Franco, the plight of Jewish refugees from Hitler, Welsh coal miners, the independence of African countries from colonial rule, the civil rights of blacks in the US, the integration of blacks into professional sports, (gee, just typing the list is getting me tired), and most notably empathy with the Soviet Union. Testifying before HUAC regarding his pro-Stalinist proclamations, he said: “You are responsible, and your forebears, for sixty million to one hundred million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about [Stalin], please.”

His passport was revoked for a number of years, and when it was restored in 1958 he traveled to Moscow to accept the Stalin Peace Prize. His later years included self-imposed exile to the Soviet Union, mental and physical health problems caused at least in part by constant surveillance. He attempted suicide, was probably slipped LSD by the KGB, underwent shock treatment in East Germany, was hounded by the FBI (he reportedly owns the largest file in their archives), and finally retired to his sister’s house in Philadelphia. Whew. And that’s leaving out a lot.

L to R: Desdemona, Othello

But we stray. The Wife is calling me back into the kitchen. So let’s put on the soundtrack of our festival of freedom, and get back to work. I’m not quite clear how Yoshke slipped into the last line of the song. If you sing it at the table Monday night, I suggest you improvise some other lyrics.

When Israel was in Egypt’s land (let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.

The Lord told Moses what to do,
To lead the children of Israel through.

They journeyed on at his command,
And came at length to Canaan’s land.

Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
And let us all in Christ be free.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’
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102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

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214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

Posted by jeff on Mar 13, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beatles — ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ (video from the movie “Help!”
If that link doesn’t work, try this one.  Or this one.
Apologies for the visual jamming. Some corporations don’t want you to enjoy this music.

13-03-2015 11-58-54In about two weeks I will have been on this planet for two-thirds of a century. One might think I’d have figured out something of significance during that time. One would be wrong. With each passing year, each passing decade, I get cluelesser and cluelesser.

The only thing I have picked up on is I am what I am. Now, there’s a piece of profound drivel for you. I mean that I have succeeded in detecting some patterns in my behaviors and predilections, and as an orthodox believer in reality, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d better get used to what I am, because it ain’t gonna change.

13-03-2015 12-02-03My clothes range from solid boring blur to solid boring brown. My best friends say I’m droll and humorless. I shout only when I accidentally cause myself physical pain.

And in music as well, I like the stripped down. In classical music, always chamber, never symphonic. I like to hear exactly what I’m hearing. In rock, acoustic. I hate double-tracked vocals and rattling, obfuscating cymbals. Look me in the eye and give me what you got.

Here, let me show you what I mean. These are my two favorite musical videos–Rick Danko of The Band singing the divine ‘Unfaithful Servant’ and Luciana Souza singing Naftali Neruda’s ‘Sonnet 49’. Unadorned, restrained, straightforward. Glitzless. Pristine and perfect. And here’s another one – The Beatles singing ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ from “Help!”.

13-03-2015 12-02-55I recently rewatched The Beatles’ movie “Help!” I probably saw it twice when it was released in the summer of 1965. It was of course a tremendous letdown after “Hard Day’s Night”–unfocused, humorless, self-indulgent, flat. Still, I waited a couple of months after it was released to go see it. I wasn’t going to put myself in a movie theater with all those screaming girls. But I hadn’t seen it since.

I’ve been practicing my snobbism for a long time. I didn’t even apply for tickets when The Beatles came to town (you sent in a check for $24 for two tickets and crossed your fingers). My friend Andy called me that morning of August 21, 1966 to tell me his little sister was sick, would I like her ticket? Well, if it’s already being shoved in my face… (By the way, it was hot, sticky and full of screaming adolescent girls, annoying more than epiphanous. I probably went home and listened to “Yesterday and Today” on my headphones.)

13-03-2015 12-04-54In the summer of 1965, The Beatles were on the cusp of creating a new sound in popular music. Bob Dylan had introduced them to cannabis. Their dentist had introduced them to LSD. They held the world by the huevos, and began to flex their creative muscles. They were still recording old-school covers (‘Kansas City’, October 1964; ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, May 1965), new-school rockers (‘Eight Days a Week’, October 1964; ‘I’m Down’, June 1965), but also nascent, acoustic-based Rock (as opposed to Rock and Roll) – ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ (October 1964), ‘I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party’ (September 1964), ‘Yes, It Is’ (April 1965).

The “Help!” sessions included both upbeat electric cuts (Paul’s ‘The Night Before’, ‘Another Girl’; John’s ‘Ticket to Ride’). John’s ‘Help!’ was unfortunately upbeated and electrified – he later expressed regret at that – a rare Beatles misinterpretation of their own material (the other notable example being ‘In My Life’). But one must remember that popular music of the day rarely strayed from boy-meets-girl, and ‘Help!’ was perceived at the time as Revolution #1, a harbinger of The World, It Is A-Changin’, a (whisper the word furtively) protest!You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ was widely recognized as the first unabashedly Dylanesque Lennon song.

13-03-2015 12-00-20What else was on the album? Several more experiments in directions that later became genres. ‘I Need You’ was an early prototype for George’s Eastern journeys. ‘Act Naturally’, too easily dismissed as a trifle, was in fact a groundbreaking homage to Nashville; a step later came ‘What Goes On’, “Nashville Skyline” just a couple of steps beyond that. The monolithic ‘Yesterday’. Whatever The Beatles of early 1965 touched turned not just to gold. Each cut became a template for music as it is still being made half a century later.

But me, of course, I gotta get weird about it all. Rather than all those myths-as-they’re-being-recorded, I will by default choose to listen to ‘It’s Only Love’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’, the two cuts that were saved in American for “Rubber Soul”, which for my two cents is a more natural environment, the place they really belong.13-03-2015 12-03-41For me, the song that most represents “Help!”, the natural apex of the first incarnation of the Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’. I think it almost slips unnoticed among all those flashier jewels. It’s the culmination of everything that went before it – from ‘Please, Please Me’ to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to ‘I Feel Fine’.

There’s nothing unique about ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ (except that Ringo plays bongos and the intro is an ear-gnashing eighth tone lower than the body of the song). It’s merely the perfect early Beatles song. Stretching a point, it’s the perfect place for rock and roll to end and Rock to begin.

So when I recently rewatched this clip of ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ from “Help!”, I realized I hadn’t really learned anything over those 50 years. I understand now exactly what I understood as a silly, snobbish 17-year old, exactly the same thing that a bejillion screaming 12-year old girls understood – that The Beatles were the coolest humans ever born, making the finest music of our times.

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030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

Posted by jeff on Mar 5, 2015 in A Cappella, Other, Song Of the week

After the last 2 SoTWs, ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and “Over the Rainbow’, E.Y. wrote “What’s wrong with you, a normal song yet again?” Well, that’s an implicit challenge I can’t left unanswered, a musical gauntlet thrown at my feet.

So here you go, E.Y. and all you other unwitting readers: The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. Seriously. I realize that may sound a bit, um, obscure, but they were a big hit in San Francisco in the 1980s, they won a Grammy in 1989 and recorded with Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to them steadily since I discovered them a couple of years ago. C’mon, bear with me a bit.
The group has a murky history obfuscated by a muddy discography. From what we can gather, the group was formed in 1951 (right on, Bulgaria!), started recording in 1957, were discovered by a Swiss ethnomusicologist in 1975, and after Perestroika they hit the big time.

Their discography is even more obscure. In 1986, The Bulgarian State Television and Radio Female Vocal Choir released a CD best known as “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares”, the name by which they’re most commonly known. In 1992, the choir divided into two: the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and a collective which now records and performs as “Angelite – The Bulgarian Voices”.

Read more…

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043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

Posted by jeff on Feb 26, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

I know, we’re all busy with spring cleaning, nobody has the time to sit around and listen to Jeff ramble on interminably about esoteric minutiae. So we’ll keep it short and focused. And lovely.

The Left Banke was a two-hit wonder – ‘Walk Away, Renee‘ and ‘Pretty Ballerina‘. But their two hits are indeed wonders, the most successful attempt to instill classical ingredients into art rock. In jazz, there was an entire movement in the 1950s, The Third Stream, producing quite a body of music that has held up over the years. In jazz this fusion was more serious, injecting a contemporary classical sensibility – Brubeck, the MJQ, George Russell. In rock for the most part, ‘baroque rock’, ‘Bach rock’, or (my favorite) ‘baroque & roll’ was rather pitiful and pompous, these two gems excepted.

These two songs employ baroque-ish mock-fugal lines, a quasi-harpsichord keyboard, a restrained little string section, and a light, breathy vocal. Kind of like a ‘kosher-style’ deli.

Judging by their history, The Left Banke (gee, nothing pretentious about the name, is there?) was a bunch of spoiled kids from New York. Their leader and songwriter, Michael Brown, was 16 when the group formed in 1965.  They made a few recordings which the record companies enthusiastically ignored. After the band had recorded the basic track for ‘Walk Away, Renee’, composer Brown split for the coast. The band finished up the track without him, Smash Records picked it up, and in July, 1966, it hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (‘Satisfaction’ was #1), followed by ‘Pretty Ballerina’ (#15) half a year later.

They recorded one quite respectable album on which the two hits appeared. I knew it well ‘back in the day’ and recently revisited it. It’s quite pleasant, but I don’t recommend walking out of your daughter’s wedding to go look for it. If you happen upon it, it won’t hurt you. And I even performed the service of listening to the second album, a death-bed flop squeezed out of a dying band by artificial inspiration. Don’t bother.

So we’re left with the two wonder hits. Which one gets to be SoTW? Well, here were the judges’ considerations:

Walk Away, Renee’ was a bigger hit, you can hum it, you can dance to it, and it’s had more cover versions (most notably The Four Tops, which I will not understand as long as I live).

So the winner, hands down, is ‘Pretty Ballerina‘, that precious, delicate flower from December, 1966. Thanks, guys.

I had a date with a pretty ballerina
Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes
I asked her for this dance
and then she obliged me
Was I surprised, yeah
Was I surprised,
No not at all

I called her yesterday,
it should have been tomorrow
I could not keep
the joy that was inside
I begged for her to tell me
if she really loved me
Somewhere a mountain is moving
Afraid it’s moving without me

And when I wake on a dreary Sunday morning
I open up my eyes to find there’s rain
And something strange within said,
go ahead and find her
Just close your eyes, yeah
Just close your eyes and she’ll be there
She’ll be there…

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