XTC: Harvest Festival
Andy Partridge is second only to Ray Davies for his ability to turn the details of ordinary British life into beautiful song. In "Harvest Festival" (from the last great XTC album, Apple Venus Volume 1), the narrator takes comfort in gaze: "The longing look you gave me / That longing look / More than enough to keep me fed all year". He doesn't get the girl in the end, but somehow that's OK.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The Sea and Cake: Lost in Autumn
There's nothing particularly autumnal in the lyrics of this song; in fact, it's hard to tell if the "Autumn" of the song's title is a season, a girl, or something else entirely. But then, post-rock/post-jazz combo The Sea and Cake isn't known for their lyricism. Instead, this laid-back late-night song from the band's early, pre-electronic era conjures up the slow, languid fall of a leaf on the wind, and anticipates the stillness of bare winter to come.
Big Star : September Gurls
I'm surprised nobody posted this song yet, thanks to the cult status of Big Star. Their music, although 30 years old, sounds so modern that the band is particularly praised now in the 2000s while it went practically unnoticed when it came out
These are the laws of rock history.
Whatever, the music of Big Star (here, of Alex Chilton, since Chris Bell had left the band)is full of power, great pop music both fierce and delicate, with that drop of venom that charecterized the post-hippie era, and which is still palpable in indie rock.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die
Before I begin, I would like to thank my fellow Star Makers for their help gathering the songs for this post. I could never have done it without you.
I am old enough to have heard Traffic’s classic John Barleycorn Must Die when it first came out, and young enough to have been a child at the time. My oldest brother brought it home, and made sure I heard it. I made two incorrect assumptions at the time. I thought Traffic wrote the song. And I heard a fair amount of psychedelic music at the time; I assumed that the lyrics told the strange tale of a man who kept being treated in cruel and unusual ways, but I never guessed that there was any deeper meaning. I knew that I loved the sound of the song, and that was enough.
But now I am older, and I understand more. John Barleycorn Must Die is a traditional English song. There is a record of a version from the 1300s, and it is likely older than that. Over time, many variants have arisen, with changes to both the melody and the words. The song became widely known throughout the British Isles. Scottish poet Robert Burns even wrote a version.
And the story is deeper than I knew. John Barleycorn is the personification of the grain, and the song tells the story of the grain from planting to harvest and beyond. The song usually begins with Barleycorn’s first death; he is buried, and dirt is heaped upon him. This, of course, is the planting of the grain. In midsummer, he grows a “long long beard” and “becomes a man”. The song goes on to describe threshing and harvesting. Barleycorn is bailed and taken to the barn. And then the grain is parceled out. Some is taken to the miller to make flour for bread. And some is saved and brewed in a vat to make ale. And some is planted, so that the whole cycle can begin again.
It is likely that versions of John Barleycorn were sung in pre-Christian times, to accompany harvest rituals. Some of these rituals survive to this day in modified form, most famously the sacrifice of the wicker man. These rituals tell the story of the death and rebirth of the god of the grain.
The lyrics used by Traffic start with three men who came from the west. This reminds me of the three wise men who came from the East in the Nativity story. The first Christians who came to the British Isles often looked for parallels between native myths and the Story of Christ, in order to help the natives accept Christianity. So these three men from the west may be an example of this. John Barleycorn shares with the Christ Story the theme of death and rebirth.
Jethro Tull: John Barleycorn
Jethro Tull’s version of the song is just called John Barleycorn, but it is otherwise a straightforward cover of the Traffic version, sharing the same melody and lyrics. But Jethro Tull has created an arrangement that is wholly original, and shows off the classic Jethro Tull sound. Ian Anderson’s trademark flute sound arrives midway through the song.
Tim van Eyken: Barleycorn
Tim van Eyken has proved himself to pure traditionalists in the English folk scene. He even played with Waterson: Carthy, the ultimate traditional English folk group. But here, he gives Barleycorn, as he calls it, a folk rock treatment. He uses a different melody and slightly different lyrics than Traffic and Tull. His three men at the beginning come not from the west but from Kent.
Steeleye Span: John Barleycorn
Steeleye Span gives us yet another variant on the song. Again, we have a different melody, and some variations in the lyrics. And Steeleye Span adds a refrain of “Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day” etc. This sounds like it may have originally belonged to another song entirely. There are numerous examples of this in English folk music.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Fairport Convention: Who Knows Where the Time Goes
When the mornings get cooler and the leaves start changing colors, I can't help but get a little melancholy. I don't know if it's the ghost of school years past or the regrets of another summer of unfulfilled plans drawn to a close. Either way, autumn is all about contemplating the passage of time. And even though Sandy Denny keeps claiming not to notice the passing of time in her signature tune, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," she captures that melancholy mood perfectly. The Judy Collins cover might be more well known, but I prefer the version Sandy did while she was with Fairport Convention in 1969. Somehow, knowing she died well before her time gives her version added resonance.
The Kinks: Autumn Almanac
"Tea and toasted, buttered currant buns, can't compensate for lack of sun"... probably not for most folks, but football sure helps a lot of us, especially because it's also on Sunday,Monday and sometimes Thursday!
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Jeff Lynne: September Song
I distinctly remember when I got my first music-playing device. It was Christmas 1979, and my parents gave me a Panasonic cassette recorder--one of those old-school, mono machines that laid flat (very similar to this one).
Before I got to that present however, I opened up a smaller one. A cassette! When I first opened it, part of the cover was obscured, and all I saw was the word "Orchestra" and what at first glance appeared to be a black-and-white photo of men in tuxedos, and my initial thought was, "Yuck! a classical recording!". I soon figured out it was indeed a rock album--Electric Light Orchestra's On the Third Day. (My parents must have noticed me listening to my older brother's ELO cassettes.) Say what you will about ELO, that album was my first love, predating (and leading directly to) my long-standing Beatles fixation.
This is all a rather long-winded way of introducing this song, which is not actually an ELO track, but a song from ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne's one-and-only solo album, Armchair Theatre, from 1990. It's not a particularly great album, but thanks to Christmas 1979, I have a soft spot for Mr. Lynne. And on this toe-tapping, slightly wonky cover of "September Song," he hits all the right nostalgic notes, while avoiding the over-sentimentality that creeps in on slower versions of the song.
Solas: Pastures of Plenty
Woody Guthrie wrote several songs which relate to the harvest, in that they tell of the plight of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. Pastures of Plenty is one of the best. The title is ironic; Guthrie tells of fields in California with bountiful harvests, but the workers partake of only a very small part of them.
It is not surprising that this song would resonate with Irish musicians. Ireland is, after all, a place with its own history of agricultural misfortune. And sure enough, Solas delivers an amazing high energy version of this Woody Guthrie classic. Like many folk groups in the British Isles, Solas features an ever changing lineup. The lead singer here is Karan Casey, who has since moved on to a successful career as a solo artist.
September's still Summer, but the nights are like Fall.
Tell me your Fall Stories,
Every time you broke your heart...
It's an easy pun to turn the falling leaves of autumn into an image of falling from grace and love, but that doesn't mean it can't be done well. All it takes is a sense of humor, a cha-cha beat, a twangy mando-guitar combo, and a set of perfect harmonies that hook the listener in. And with that stellar package stamped all over their 2003 debut album Remember Who I Am, folk trio Girlyman set the tone for a bright future on the folk circuit.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Mississippi John Hurt: Blue Harvest Blues
What do you do when harvest time catches you unprepared? Not a good thing with winter just around the bend. You may become a weary traveler. Mississippi John Hurt will fill you in. From 1928, perhaps sometime in the fall, Blue Harvest Blues.
Cheryl Wheeler: When Fall Comes to New England
Living in South Florida, it's difficult for me to comprehend fall or New England... yet Cheryl Wheeler's descriptive lyrics and plaintive voice instantly evoke the seasonal equinox and the geographic landscape, introducing me to the snap in the air, the swirl of the leaves and the smoke in the chimneys - bring on the flannel!