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Pharrell Williams: Happy

This ecstatic song needs no introduction. The text for “Happy” is itself an irrepressible extended metaphor for the title, a song built on similes “like a room without a roof”.  “Happy” sold 6.45 million copies in the U.S., alone, in the year after its release in 2013, at the top of the Billboard’s hot 100 chart, and “covered” by over 1,500 You Tube videos in 2014. The first mime of the song I’d ever heard was a You Tube sent to me from a cousin in Paris, a hilarious version made by the staff of Air France

That year these video celebrations seemed to be everywhere at once, everywhere in the world from New Zealand to Poland to Iran. Sometimes with dire political consequences. 

I’ll close my week as guest blogger with a stunning version of “Happy,” one that Williams performed live with pianist Lang Lang for the 57th Grammy Awards. Suffice it to say, the devastating death of Eric Garner (whose trial is being held now in New York as I write this), had taken place a few months before. Watching this performance alerts us to the privilege happiness is, and how powerful each interpretation of the lyrics to a song can be.  

Leonard Cohen: Take this Waltz

“This poet ruined my life,” Leonard Cohen said of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  Cohen, a singer/songwriter and poet, himself, took great liberty with the original text of the haunting poem it is based on,”Pequeño vals vienés” (Little Viennese Waltz). The poem is from Lorca’s  Poet in New York, a collection written after a difficult year in depression era New York (1929-30) studying at Columbia University. One can see how Cohen would be drawn to Lorca, with ideas like this, from “New York: Office and Denunciation”:

‘What shall I do now? Align all the landscapes?/ Muster the lovers who turn into photographs/ and later are splinters of wood, and mouthfuls of blood?’

After returning to Spain, Garcia Lorca sided with the anti-fascist Republicans when Civil War broke out there in 1936. He was by then famous, liberal, and gay, all of which made him a target. He was shot and killed in the custody of the nationalist militia. He was 38. A version of Lorca’s ideas live on in Cohen’s homage, “Take This Waltz”. Cohen, who died in 2016, lives, too, in this poem/song, this waltz with its heartbreaking entreaty to: “take its broken waste in your hand”.

Laura Nyro: Save the Country

Save the people, save the children
Save the country, everybody save the country
Save the country, save the country, save the country now

The Pollyanna in me reaches for something hopeful today. The political climate we are living in certainly calls for more protest songs like this one. And if ever we needed a positive rallying cry, it is now.  Nyro, an acclaimed songwriter, singer, pianist, who lamentably died young, at the age of 49, was inspired to write this optimistic, almost buoyant song after the assignation of Robert Kennedy June 5, 1968. Even as she wrote of fury, she went on to assert: 

We could build the dream with love, I know
We could build the dream with love

Mavis Staples & The Staple Singers: I’ll Take You There

When commissioned to compose a sequence of poems to be set to music to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising the song “I’ll Take You There,” from the same era, was among the first that came to mind. A kind of anthem first performed and recorded in 1972 by The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There” was a protest song that reflected a kind of optimism, an instant and uplifting hit. Al Bell’s lyrics are a call and response echoing the text of the title, building power on repetition, responding to an idea of hope for a future with: “Ain’t no smilin’ faces / Lyin’ to the races”.  The original recording features Mavis Staples as the lead singer. Mavis joined her family’s gospel singing group at the age of 11. The r& b soul singer/civil rights activist, turns 80 this summer––on tour, still singing this still necessary song.

Antônio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina: Águas de Março (1974)

The first opera I ever experienced live was at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the great Verdi soprano Leontyne Price’s last performance of “Aida”. In those days (1985) there were no super titles, no digital text translating the words in real time. The thrill that shuttled between my body and mind that night had little to do with the libretto (as I am not fluent in Italian), and everything to do with her voice, the composition, the orchestra. All of it, combined.

As a word-worker, it takes an extra bit of effort to let go of what was literally being said, to give myself over to the sway of a song performed in a language I don’t speak or clearly understand. But some songs take no effort at all, and need no translation. In the spirit of letting go, and celebrating that which floods in that space of not knowing, I offer this joyful  documentary recording of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina studio performance of “Águas de Março,” (1974).  

Note:  That said, I can’t help but offer a few lines of the lyrics, which are pure poetry. Listen to the song first, then take a look at the lyrics. “Waters of March,” from the Portuguese, is composed as a litany of what “it is” to feel joy, what the composition, the voices, the instrumentation, all of it, combined, enacts:  …. “it is the knob in the wood”  “it is the fall of the bluff”  “it is end of the slope,/it is the beam, it is the span” “it is the end of tiredness”.

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