044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

Posted by jeff on Mar 25, 2018 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, starred in a play by Eugene O’Neil and was cast to star in the movie version of Porgy and Bess (till he argued politics with the director). 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 seder 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’
058: Dave Frishberg, ‘Van Lingle Mungo’
102: Netanela, ‘Shir HaYona’ (Matti Caspi)

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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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045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

Posted by jeff on Jan 29, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Julie London, ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’

For a goodly number of years now, I’ve been singing modern a cappella, a young genre of mostly young music for mostly young singers and listeners. I sing mostly the contrabass part—you know, the real low dum-dum-dum underneath everyone else that you can’t really hear but it looks funny and fun and is kind of endearing and cute, even if not many Caruso’s begin their careers there. And I’d like to share with you this week how I decided to become a bass.

The ones who get the spotlight are those prima divas, the sopranos. They sing the melody, draw everyone’s attention, they a priori get first crack at all the solos. And, singing the melody, they don’t need to be too smart. So I tried that; and, cute as they were, I got tired of the inner blonde vapidness of singing melodies.

17-year old Julie London in 1943, adorning GI barracks worldwide

So I tried the altos. Challenging? Always. They get the trickiest parts to sing. They’re outside the spotlight, but they’re really the crucial element in the harmonic brew. I would have loved to be an alto, but to my great chagrin they didn’t want me. They said I’m no fun in rehearsals, all I do is sing.

So I tried the tenors. Well, no one would accuse them of being the sharpest pencils in the box, but they’re good guys, and they get to sing pretty neat parts sometimes. But I found that every time we did a song they sang a different part, which was a bit frustrating for me. And besides, I couldn’t keep up with their drinking.

So I slipped down to the basses. Good guys, never met a bass I didn’t like. But how long can you sing the tonic of the chord without going brain dead? And by the time the other voices learned their parts, I was ready to pack it in and go home.

Then I saw this clip. And I knew I wanted to be a real bass, a dum-dum-dum contrabass. So I did. It’s been fine, but reality is never quite the same as the dream, is it?

Julie London (1926–2000) is today best remembered for 3 things:

  • The original and best known recording of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me a River’ (written by her high-school buddy Arthur Hamilton). She performs it magnificently as Tom Ewell’s fantasy in the Jayne Mansfield cinematic masterpiece ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’.
  • Her role as Dixie McCall on the TV series ‘Emergency!’ (sorry, I’ve never seen it, and there’s a limit to how far I’ll go to research SoTW).
  • The generous cleavage she contributed to her album covers in the 1950s.

Julie wasn’t a great singer, but she was certainly a competent one, reserved and controlled, a member in good standing of the bevy of excellent cool white chick jazz singers in the 1950s, including Blossom Dearie (that’s her real name), Chris Connor, June Christy, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), Sheila Jordan, and Helen Merrill. Julie’s niche was the slow, sensual and sultry. The word ‘smoky’ seems to have been created especially for her. Here’s a ton of clips of her singing. And here’s a ton of pictures of her.

She was good enough for Billboard to name her the most popular female vocalist for 1955, 1956, and 1957. The covers certainly didn’t hurt the albums’ sales, but her reputation as a vocalist has remained quite respectable.

She seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards her ultra-sexy image: on the one hand, if you look at the clip and the album covers, she’s clearly very comfortable (and successful) in the role of sexpot. On the other, she seems to have been a shy person, whose film career was limited by her refusal to do nude scenes.

But she did make lots of movies and TV shows, and a whole pile of pretty respectable LPs. Still, I like to remember her for a few less-known nuggets:

Her first husband was Jack Webb. Yup, Sgt Joe Friday himself. They were married from 1947–1954. They were both ardent jazz fans. And they met when Julie was 15!!

Julie was apparently quite a looker at a young age. In 1943, GIs were pinning up on the walls of their barracks and tents all over the world the rather amazing picture above of 17-year old Julie from Esquire magazine.

After she divorced Sgt Friday (“Just the facts, ma’am”), she married Bobby Troup, composer of the jazz and pop classic ‘Route 66’. They stayed married for 40 years. In Hollywood.

But mostly what I remember Julie for is this rendition of ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’, a staple of the Great American Songbook, written in 1926 by Ray Henderson (music) and Mort Dixon (lyrics). I was quite surprised to read that the song has often been understood to describe a prostitute’s resolve to leave the business (thus a mirror-image song of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’).

No one here can love and understand me
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me
Make my bed and light the light
I’ll arrive late tonight
Blackbird, bye bye.

While there may be more revelatory versions of the song (Miles Davis’s is probably my favorite), and more famous ones (Keith Jarrett, among a myriad of others), I sure do appreciate Julie’s version.

I’ve done some looking for other efforts in this format. The divine Sarah Vaughan has 2 excellent albums with just bass and guitar, which are pretty close to this idiom, ‘Sarah after Hours‘ and ‘Sarah + 2’. The unique Sheila Jordan has made a number of really interesting albums with Harvie Swartz or Cameron Brown, but she’s a lot more intellect than libido.

But for all the wonder of Sarah’s voice and Ms Jordan’s intelligence, it’s Julie London that’s engraved into my very male brain. It’s so elemental, torch singer and bass, female and male, yang and yin, one on top one underneath.

I’m sorry I haven’t been able to discover who the bassist is in the clip. But it doesn’t really matter. In my imagination, it’s me.

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026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

Posted by jeff on Aug 2, 2013 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Real life raised its ugly little head last week (wedding, singing, working), and I missed the local performances of Andy Bey, the most interesting performer to visit our little sliver of the world since I missed Kurt Elling in Eilat 16 months ago (but who’s counting?)

Andy Bey is an obscure, gay, HIV-positive, black, pianist-baritone. Despite his incredible talent, he’s managed to maintain his obscurity over the course of a professional career that’s been going on now for 63(!!!) years, since he was eight. In the late 50s and early 60s he and his sisters Geraldine and Salome were pretty popular in Paris. And this very fine clip of a jazz version of Besame Mucho from 1965 for some bizarre reason makes me think that Stills, Nash and Crosby would stand at attention and salute it.
Bey worked with Horace Silver and Cecil Taylor and taught singing in Europe, “But you have to be isolated in order to be really focused. I’ve always been able to survive somehow, and I’ve been through the dark tunnel many times. But I always come out a little more enlightened, a little more aware.” Well, he certainly remained in that dark tunnel commercially, until a pair of releases, “Ballads, Blues and Bey” (1996, just him singing and playing) and “Shades of Bey” (1998, from which our SoTW is taken), and the brand-new “The World According to Andy Bey” (2013) have brought him some modicum of attention.

In this TV segment you can hear him at his best, in Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’. By definition, you’d have to call him a baritone crooner, but that doesn’t really tell the story. He’s not really a crooner, because he never falls back on easy sentimentality—at his best he’s mucho sentimental, but always with hard-core, genuine passion. And that voice, that voice. He has a crystal-pure baritone timbre with the range of a pedigreed tenor. He sings the octave and a half above middle C without a falsetto—just gently, flawlessly, effortlessly. Those of you who aren’t baritones maybe don’t get the miracle of physics that entails—something equivalent to a sumo wrestler trying to fly, which is what I feel like when I try to climb up to those heady heights. He does it with such grace and aplomb that you would think baritones were meant to sing up there. The guy’s stretching the limits of the concept ‘range’.  With impeccable taste, yet. I hate people like that.

Anyway, Andy was kind enough to sing our SoTW for us, ‘River Man’, written by Nick Drake. Nick offed himself in 1974, at 26, ‘a complete unknown’, with 3 flop LPs. His suicide was, as they say, a great career move. His Keatsean celebrity has been burgeoning ever since. Andy Bey went through the tunnel, and came out on the other side.

We usually don’t like these crossover gimmicks, but I will admit that from the 6 Andy Bey CDs I’ve been listening to over the last couple of weeks, that’s the cut that consistently reached out and grabbed me. And sent me running back to try Nick Drake again (4th time maybe; not even the treatment of the song by that fine pianist Brad Mehldau did that), to try to figure out if he really is the cat’s meow that so many “young” people seem to think he is. Well, they can keep thinking. I’m not convinced. His vision is vapid, his wistfulness is wastefulness, his aura is air. Go listen to Donovan for a hermaphrodite with toughness in the brain. But, damn, that ‘River Man’ is one fine song. Evocative, elusive, intriguing. And when performed by a singer with Andy Bey’s technique—his resonance, his virile timbre, his gravity-defying breath control—it’s a memorable cut, I think.

Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves…

You can hear the Swingle Singers’ version of ‘River Man’ and other fine songs here.

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