Saturday, May 29, 2010

Public Domain: The Water Is Wide

Karla Bonoff (with James Taylor): The Water Is Wide

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Tim O'Brien, Darol Anger, David Grisman, Michael Manring, Bela Fleck, John Jennings: The Water Is Wide


Indigo Girls, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan: The Water Is Wide


From the Wikipedia entry:

"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly") is thought to be an English or Scottish folk song that has been sung since the 1600s and has seen considerable popularity through to the 21st century... Cecil Sharp collected this song during his journey to America in World War I.

The inherent challenges of love are made apparent in the narrator's imagery: "Love is handsome, love is kind" during the novel honeymoon phase of any relationship. However, as time progresses, "love grows old, and waxes cold". Even true love, the narrator admits, can "fade away like morning dew"...

This post came in a roundabout way, in that my first song choice for this theme was Shenandoah, and I remembered the Heritage CD I had, which contained a version by the lovely Jane Siberry - however, when I listened, it was over 7 minutes long and a child's voice chimed in and... it just didn't resonate... so I used only Laura Love's interpretation...

However, also on the Heritage CD (an amazing project produced by fiddler Darol Anger, with a terrific array of guest stars) was a gorgeous rendition sung by Tim O'Brien, joined by other brilliant musicians... which in turn made me remember the Lilith Fair collaboration (with Indigo Girls, Jewel and then Sarah McLachlan taking turns on the verses)... which brought to mind an old favorite a few years post-college by Karla Bonoff, joined by James Taylor who lends his distinctive guitar and voice....

All are different and all are goosebump-inducing - as Darol says in his liner notes:

"In my life between the cracks as an art/folk musician, I've always dealt with the metaphor of traditional music as a river connecting the present with our parents, grandparents and on back It's a good metaphor because you can just about tease it to death. In that spirit, I've been moved to try to bring some old songs a ways downriver... They've been alternately worn smooth and built up again and again, polished to mirrors, so we see ourselves in them. They are truly emissaries from upriver, reminding us of who we are and where we come from. Point us in a direction. Are you going upriver or down?"

Public domain: Sakura, Sakura


Koto: Sakura, Sakura
(from a Japanese website that I cannot read)

Miyavi: JPN Pride


With age comes wisdom. I've learned never to volunteer to play horse with anyone from NYC, never to cook for anyone from the south, and never to pawn off my knowledge of American or British folk music around all the other much more savvy posters here on Star Maker Machine.

Darius, though, suggested I try to find some J-rock in the public domain. Easier said than done; their copyright law doesn't give us the break on songs from before 1923. So I'm being creative here – work with me, 'k?

Sakura, Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) is a traditional Japanese folk song, written for children to learn to play on the stringed koto. If you have a Japanese music box, odds are good that it plays this melody. Mine does. Words were added that translate to something like:

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
On meadow-hills and mountains
As far as you can see.
Is it a mist or clouds?
Fragrant in the morning sun.
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Flowers in full bloom.

Miyavi, my favorite Neovisual Kei artist, took this classic melody and wrote a song heavily based on it. 'JPN Pride' is an ode to the Japanese spirit. His lyrics translate to something like:

Let the high mountain grasses we call pride bloom in our hearts,
Like beautiful flowers that sing and dance, scattering on the flag of the rising sun,
Sakura, sakura, my heart is stolen by the flowers raining down, bewitched by dreams,
Sakura, sakura, not even noticing the flowers on the ground, I just walk over them...

(translated by taijiproject)

m(_ _)m (this is an emoticon – a bow, can you see it?)

Public Domain: Star Maker Tradition Edition

It is the custom, here on Star Maker, to end the week with a multi-song post. In a week that has emphasized traditional music, I could hardly do otherwise. So here are songs from three albums I wanted to get to this week, and somehow never did.

Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown: He Was a Friend of Mine


It would have been enough to have a track from either Bill Morrissey or Greg Brown. These two are among the finest artists in acoustic music today. But here they are together.

I first heard He Was a Friend of Mine in the version by the Byrds. The lyrics don’t quite fit, but the song always felt like a tribute to John F Kennedy, and I think the Byrds may have had that in mind. So I was surprised to find that this is a traditional song.

John Wesley Harding: Little Musgrave


As far as I know, John Wesley Harding was only a folk singer for one album, but it is a fine one. Little Musgrave tells the story of a man of low rank who beds a lord’s wife. These stories always end badly. It is not surprising that a lord’s wife would stray, given that she was in an arranged marriage where love was not part of the deal. But the songs where the lord is the one who strays have very different endings. Completely unfair!

The New St George: The Mermaid


I seem to be stuck on songs of the sea this week. But fear not, if we ever do a week of sea songs, I have plenty of material left. I wanted to make sure I included a tale of a sailor’s encounter with the supernatural this week, and this is one of the most beautiful examples I know. For the story of the New St George, go here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Public Domain: Shenandoah

Laura Love: Shenandoah

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I have a childhood memory of going to my local movie theater to see Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart - it was released in June 1965, so I was almost 11. I of course had learned about the Civil War in school, but I didn't pick up the nuances of how the North vs. South battle affected families personally until a repeat viewing years later. I do, however, recall loving the song that began the film, and which wove throughout during crucial scenes - to this day, it invokes a feeling of poignancy and pain...

From the Wikipedia entry:

"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah", or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating at least to the early 19th century...

The lyrics may tell the story of a roving trader in love with the daughter of an Indian chief; in this interpretation, the rover tells the chief of his intent to take the girl with him far to the west, across the Missouri River. Other interpretations tell of a pioneer's nostalgia for the Shenandoah River Valley in Virginia, and a young woman who is its daughter; or of a Union soldier in the American Civil War, dreaming of his country home to the west of the Missouri river, in Shenandoah, Iowa (though the town lies some 50 miles east of the river)...

The song is also associated with escaped slaves. They were said to sing the song in gratitude because the river allowed their scent to be lost."

I adore this version by Laura Love - her cracked, distinctive, gentle yet strong voice more than does it justice... and she lends her own interpretation of loss and longing to the tune...

Public Domain: Jack-a-Roe

Grateful Dead: Jack-a-Roe (acoustic)


Grateful Dead: Jack-a-Roe (electric)


Jack-a-Roe tells the story of a woman who dresses as a man, and goes to sea to find her man. It is the best known of many such songs. There are so many because this really did happen. What would drive women to do this, and why did they become separated in the first place? It was the fault of the press gangs. Let me explain.

From 1664 to 1812, whenever the British found themselves at war and short of sailors, they would send the press gangs into seaside taverns and other places where seamen were known to gather, and take all the eligible men essentially prisoner. These unfortunates were then forced to serve in the King or Queen’s navy. Many of these men, once they found themselves in this situation, would “volunteer” to qualify for extra pay. In official statistics, this allowed the government to report that the press gang problem was not as bad as it actually was. But the girlfriends of these disappeared men knew better.

In 1981, the Grateful Dead released two albums, both the products of their recent tour. The tour was unusual, because there was one electric set and one acoustic set at each show. Songs from the acoustic set were collected into the album Reckoning, while the electric sets yielded the album Dead Set. Reckoning was the first time the Dead put Jack-a-Roe on an official release. However, I combed through an online archive of Grateful Dead shows to prepare for this post, and I found that the Dead had been playing the song live for some time. Every performance that I found from both before and after the Reckoning tour was electric. So, I have included an electric version as well. To my ear, Jack-a-Roe never sounded better than in late April and May of 1977. The version I have chosen is from May.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Public Domain: The Moonshiner

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem: The Moonshiner


Bob Dylan: Moonshiner


"The Moonshiner" plays into one of the biggest Irish stereotypes by celebrating alcohol. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sing it like most Irish folk groups do, as a rousing drinking song in waltz time (though they do give it a little extra ham, as they often did).

On he other hand, the Dylan version (simply called "Moonshiner"), is a mournful ballad, hewing close to the traditional Appalachian version. The narrator is no longer celebrating. The party is over. He's looking back on a life wasted.

Despite their differences, the songs share some of the same lyrics and an obvious common lineage. So which came first? Did the song sober up on its way to the New World? Or is it an American original spruced up for Old World pub audiences? Nobody's really sure.

Either way, it is interesting to note how different these two performances of obtainably the same song are, given that they were recorded only a year apart (Dylan in '62, the Clancys in '63) by two acts who were pals on the Greenwich Village folk scene.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Public Domain: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody


Al Jolson: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody


Judy Garland: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody


Rufus Wainwright: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody


This song is from a 1918 Broadway musical, Sinbad, which showcased music's biggest star at the time, Al Jolson. For a show ostensibly set in Bagdad, it featured more than a few songs extolling the Old South: "Swanee", "My Mammy", "Darktown Dancin’ School ", and this one. By US law, any song copyrighted or recorded before 1923 is now in the public domain and so it nicely fits our weekly theme.

Travel six blocks north to Carnegie Hall and skip forward 43 years to the night of April 23, 1961, where we find the same song being performed by another of American music's biggest stars: Judy Garland. The concert was a huge milestone for the sometimes erratic performer and won her four Grammys, including Best Album and Best Female Vocalist.

Forty-five years later, same venue, same tune – in fact, all of the same tunes that were sung during Judy's original Carnegie Hall concert were recreated by Canadian-American singer Rufus Wainwright in one man's tribute to a quintessential gay icon. About his homage, he said, "I don't think it would have been possible for anyone other than a gay male to do this concert. In a weird way, a gay man has some sort of perspective on it, I believe."

Quite a legacy for a simple Tin Pan Alley tune written by a Hungarian immigrant.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Public Domain: Bouree

Jethro Tull: Bouree


One approach to this week’s theme is to find traditional songs. I’ve done that already, and I will again later this week. But most classical music is also in the public domain. And that brings me to Bach. I would say that Bach perfected the art of the fugue. If you’ve ever sung a round, you have an idea what this is. In a fugue, one instrument starts the melody, and the next starts it later, and then the next, and so on. The overlapping parts produce the harmonies and also the overlapping rhythms do their part. Bach would do this with a theme and then variations, and it always worked.

This transformation of something simple into something richer is a hallmark of Bach’s music, even when the fugue is not involved. For this reason, his music appeals to a wide range of musicians today outside of the classical genre. Case in point: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Anderson actually has some classical background, and he has recorded a version of Bouree with an orchestra. But this was the first recording he did of it. In Jethro Tull’s hands, Bouree becomes a folk-rock piece with jazzy overtones. Bouree became one of Jethro Tull’s signature tunes; fans expected to hear it at their shows, and often did. There are several live versions of it available, and the group improvises and plays with the arrangement, so no two versions sound the same. But Anderson and Co never lose track of the beauty of Bach’s original melody.

Public Domain: The Conscripts Edition

Bruce Springsteen: Mrs McGrath


Boys signed up for war against their wills make the common link here. Ted McGrath probably wouldn't have gone to war if not for his mother and now he has returned with two stumps for legs to show for his troubles. The Wikipedia entry for this song says it can be traced back to the Napoleonic wars but became a popular anti-war song among the Irish in 1916. Bruce Springsteen makes one small change, replacing King of Spain with King of America, a pointed reference to Iraq.

Fairport Convention: The Deserter


Fairport Convention recorded the Deserter for Liege and Lief and though Matty Groves is the crowd pleaser listen to this track and you might agree it was the standout. A boy refuses to fight and deserts again and again. Prince Albert - presumably Queen Victoria's husband - recognizes that by his determination he has shown the very qualities the English army needs. Which begs the question; what happened next? He could well be Teddy McGrath, unknownst to his mother running off at every opportunity till rescued by the Prince himself and sent off to the front. The horror, the horror

Guest post by John

Public Domain: East Virginia

The Innocence Mission: East Virginia

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This song has already gotten a post about it back during our States of the Union week, representing Virginia. Boyhowdy, in all his cover-lovin' glory posted three fantastic versions of this old song. But my favorite version is this one, one that hasn't been posted here before, and it is by one of my favorite bands, The Innocence Mission.

If you've heard the fairly well known Joan Baez version, you can tell that this is basically a cover of her version of the song, as it has the same tempo and is sung the same way. I have a love/hate relationship with Baez's voice depending on the song she's singing, and I just don't care for it on this one. Karen Peris' voice is smoother, she hits higher notes and the affect literally gives me chills. It's as if a ghost is singing the song, which I think is perfect considering the lyrics are about a woman you met once and have been haunted by since.

This version of the song was never released though, which is a shame because I think it's amazing, and right up there with some of the band's best work. Back around 2000, 2001, the internet was just taking off and the band was uploading a new rare or unreleased track to their site once a month for their fans. This was one of them, and that's how I came to have it and I am glad I get an excuse to share it with others now as well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Public Domain: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Beyoncé Knowles: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot


Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a 19th-century spiritual written before 1862 by a Choctaw freedman named Wallis Willis. It was popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a capella group from historic black Fisk University, which is still going strong today. This song recounts the disappearance of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who was reported to have been carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot after crossing the Jordan River. It's such a vivid scene that if you happen to have an illustrated Bible lying around, you'll probably find some version of it. It makes for fascinating and scary viewing if you're a little kid and can't read yet.

In 2003, Beyoncé starred in 'The Fighting Temptations', which showcased gospel music and numerous musicians as well. The soundtrack notes are very coy about who's providing the choir backing Beyoncé here. Still, if you like your gospel with a heavy dose of melisma, she's got just the song for you!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Public Domain: Frankie and Johnny

Stevie Wonder: Frankie and Johnny


Many public domain songs are thick in the broad waters of popular culture; others tend to one genre or another, depending on their ancestry. But Frankie and Johnny, which seems to have been inspired by any number of real 19th century murders, has murky origins, and its modern usage bears the stamp of the tabloids: pick an American genre - from country to folk, from jazz to swing, from stylized rock & roll to bar band blues - and you'll find a version or two. Mae West did it on broadway; Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck took their turn on the tune as a Jazz standard; Sam Cooke, Elvis, Lena Horne, Bob Dylan, and a hundred other names have all lent their credence to the sordid tale.

But though it's a straightforward ballad with fluid lyrics, open to interpretations from loving and wistful to gritty and raw, given its grisly and nuanced tale of love and death, it's much less usual to find it in the hands of babes. Here, on his no-hit 1962 tribute to the songs of Ray Charles, a startlingly young Stevie Wonder turns our expectations on their head, bringing upbeat innocence and funky Motown soul to a tune too often played out as weary and graveled. It almost works.

Public Domain: Hanging Johnny

Stan Ridgeway: Hanging Johnny


Part of the fun this week for me is going to be finding performances of traditional songs by artists you wouldn’t expect. There is no need to sacrifice quality to do this. Consider this song. I wouldn’t look to the work of Stan Ridgeway for a sea shanty, but based on this, maybe he should do more. The band he’s working with here includes another surprise. The English horn part is by Kate St John, of the Dream Academy.

The word “hanging” in the title is sort of a pun. On sailing ships, a sailor would hang from the halyard rope to give it a final tightening before a voyage. So this song is not about the gallows, but it has fun with the double meaning.