When does a song stop being a song?
And now we are here at the end of the week and the final installment of this series of posts I was asked to write for No Song Is Safe From Us. To paraphrase Frank Loesser, it’s been a long week, but I’ve really enjoyed writing these posts so I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as well.
I started out by complaining about the ubiquity of the word song. In so doing, I hope I didn’t come off as a curmudgeon, but even if I did I felt I had to defend the specificity of the word song, especially since I was writing for a blog devoted to song. But after pondering how songs have gotten shaped and redefined by collaborations, interpretations, and recorded production. But for this final salvo (until they’re willing to have me back), I’d like to blow up everything I previously wrote.
In my initial musings, I attempted to define a song as a “symbiotic fusion of words and music into a deeply personal and relatively brief sonic unit.” I think that definition holds for all of the songs I’ve described thus far. But does a “relatively brief sonic unit” have a precise and impermeable measurement?
Most songs hover in the 3-minute range, although only the first one embedded in this series—Dock Boggs’s “Sugar Baby”—fell within those time constraints. Thankfully this is the internet and not a commercial top-40 radio station that needs to jigsaw together a precise ratio of hit singles and advertisements every hour. Of course, there are plenty of terrific songs that are much shorter. One of my favorite hardcore punk albums, the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, is devoted mostly to—as you might have guessed from the band’s name—songs that hover around 60 seconds in duration. And Anton Webern’s entire opus 3 collection of five songs barely reaches the five minute mark.
But since we’re at the end of the work week, and that means there’s a weekend ahead, I thought we’d have time to consider what happens when a song goes way overtime. The 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel contains a fascinating solo in which the lead character ponders fatherhood called “Soliloquy.” It goes on for a full seven minutes. Since it has already been featured on this blog back in October 2016, I think it’s fair to say that it is still a song. (An aside: I still contend that the John Coltrane Quintet’s hour-long performance of another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “My Favorite Things,” is NOT a song since no one ever sings. However, legal statutes disagree with me on this one: whenever that recording is broadcast on American radio—though I don’t imagine it happens all that frequently given its duration—the estates of both Rodgers AND Hammerstein earn royalties, even though Hammerstein’s lyrics are nowhere to be found, and Coltrane’s estate doesn’t get a dime since only creators and their publishers have the right to seek remuneration from radio stations under current US copyright law, not interpreters—no matter how inventive—nor the recording labels.)
Basically, the way I look at it, and listen to it, is that if someone is singing words in it and the people who made it call it a song, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, to a point. It’s inane to consider a musical, an opera, an oratorio, or a cantata as a song since they are collections of songs or at least contain songs. Thankfully I’ve never heard any creator or performer of such works call these things songs and since recordings of them usually consist of multiple tracks, programs like iTunes won’t stupidly make that mistake even though the individual movements of a Beethoven symphony inevitable show up on users’ playlists as four songs. Sigh.
Since the late 1960s, many rock albums have boasted side-long tracks. (Now that vinyl has made a comeback I don’t need to include a footnote to explain this.) If such a track includes the singing of words and is a continuous musical arc not divided up into separate movements, I’m fine with calling it a song even if there are lengthy instrumental breaks. So, Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute “In A Gadda Da Vida” (1968)? Definitely a song. The Grateful Dead’s contemporaneous “Dark Star” which was 23-minutes on the first live recording of it (and considerably longer in subsequent incarnations)? Still a song. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” from 1971 which is a minute longer? Sure, why not. (But their minute less “Atom Heart Mother Suite” is absolutely NOT a song; first off, they never sing in it and mercifully they actually have the good sense to call it a suite.) How about the four sidelong tracks that constitute Yes’s 1973 double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans? Hmmm, not really sure.
And what to make of the Flaming Lips’ “7 Skies H3” from 2011, which they call “the 24-hour song” since it actually lasts a full twenty-four hours. We’ve asked you to listen to a song per day; that “song” actually takes an entire day to hear. According to the band’s leader, Wayne Coyne, “It’s not really a song; that’s just a knee-jerk reaction to what you call anything. It’s more of a sound odyssey; it’s almost like going into rehab with sound accompanying it.” Since no LP or CD could accommodate such a large piece of music, they released it on flash drives that were embedded inside real human skulls. It was a limited edition of 13 copies and is insanely expensive, but thankfully for the sake of my finances (as well as my sanity, I really don’t want a detached human skull hanging out in my apartment), the whole thing is available for streaming online. They’ve also released a 50-minute version of it on vinyl especially for Record Store Day, but who wants an excerpt if there’s a way to access the whole thing? Though admittedly I still haven’t listened to it all and I doubt that it is actually a song.
That is not to say that it’s impossible for something to go on for an hour and still be a song, especially once you start listening beyond Western musical traditions and their latter-day popular music off-springs. (After all, for popular music at least, the length of songs were really determined by what could fit on the side of a recorded single. Which is also why listening to Wagner operas on 78rpm recordings is really a drag, don’t ask me why but I’ve done it, but I digress.) One of my all-time favorite “long songs” is “Al atlaal,” a setting of a poem by Ibrahim Nagi (1898-1953) by composer Riad Al Sunbati (1906-1981) for a 1966 performance by the extraordinary Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum a.k.a. Oum Koulsoum (1904-1975). (I’ve also seen her name transliterated as Oum Kalthoum, Om Kalsoum, Om Koulsum, Om Kalthoum, Oumme Kalsoum, Umm Kolthoum, Om Koultoum, Ummi Kultsum, Ummi Kaltsum, Umi Kulsum, and Umi Kalsum. You get the idea.) However you spell her name, her emotional intensity comes across even if, like me, you can only speak about five words of Arabic. There’s a reason more people were in mourning at her funeral than the funerals of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra combined. I wanted this to be my final selection for this series, but Phil Kline beat me to the punch for this one, smartly also calling attention to it on a post he wrote for this blog on a Friday.
Perhaps I should shine light here on one of the many extraordinary Indian vocalists whose side-long and sometimes whole-album length performances I treasure, like Pandit Jasraj, whose rendition of Raga Darbari is aurally intoxicating. Or maybe Parween Sultana, who I guarantee will blow your mind with her staggering range in this nearly 49-minute performance of Raga Yaman. But here’s the thing, I don’t think that vocal renditions of ragas are actually songs despite being deeply personal. For the most part, they are improvised on solfege syllables though sometimes they can and do contain sets of lyrics and pre-existent melodies but that would make them solo cantatas if we wanted to find something to compare them with that is at least somewhat equivalent.
So instead my choice for the grand finale is this epic, literally, performance of “Cheddo” by Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte, two djelis (or griots, a.k.a. praise singer/storyteller/musicians) who each sing and play on koras, 21-string harp-lutes tuned to specific scales that to ears only acclimated to 12-tone equal temperament might seem somewhat alien but to me sound deliciously spicy. Jobarteh and Konte are hereditary djelis who come from families who have been playing such music for centuries if not longer. Both hail from the tiny West African nation of Gambia, or as some people call it, The Gambia. Since Gambia just recently celebrated a return to democracy through the ballot box (one of the few political things to be cheerful about in these complex times), it seems fitting to listen to some music from there.
Again, I have no idea what they’re singing. My linguistic abilities in Manding are even worse than my Arabic! But I do know that “Cheddo,” which is a widely performed traditional song among djelis in Gambia, Senegal, and Mali, and was a 1977 film by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, tells the story of local people who were struggling to preserve their identity and indigenous traditions at a time when they were being challenged by missionaries, colonizers, and slave-traders. In Jobarteh and Konte’s rendition featured here, it goes on for nearly 18 minutes which is probably not relatively brief, unless your standard for songwriting is “7 Skies H3.” But it is undeniably a symbiotic fusion of words and music into a deeply personal expression. So is it a song? I’ll let you decide!
Song Form Unformed and Reformed
I pondered yesterday that the blame for the current use of the word “song” to describe every kind of musical composition, which I think trivializes the art of songwriting, is possibly traceable to some jazz musicians who call whatever they play songs. But while this is a more plausible theory than it being due to the likelihood that song is the oldest form of musical expression, it was really during the ascendancy of rock that people accepted the notion that a song could be just about anything. This is actually a revolutionary idea with many implications.
In most musical traditions, there were always some pretty firm guidelines as to what constitutes a song. Whether it’s the strophic or through-composed art songs for solo voice and piano, the 32-measure AABA Tin Pan Alley song formula, or the 12-bar blues, specific song structures served as a guiding post not just for composers, lyricists, and performers, but also for the audience. Rock also did not start out in a state of complete formlessness. But it was poised not to be beholden to any specific tradition since it emerged out of the interplay of American musical creators from widely different racial, geographical, and socioeconomic backgrounds. (Philip H. Ennis attempted to trace this complex trajectory in his exhaustive 1992 book The Seventh Stream in which he posits that rock emerged from six other musical genres—country, blues, gospel, jazz, folk, and pop.) Also, since rock’s musical protagonists were part of an emergent rebellious youth culture, they very consciously eschewed anything that smacked of formality.
While the sometimes absurdly ambitious open-ended musical suites of 1970s progressive rock are often claimed as simply a further evolution and refinement of the kinds of experiments that were already in the air in the era of late 60’s psychedelia (which were often the creative by-product of other substances that were in the air at that time), I hear an avant-garde streak in rock as early as the demonic proto-Albert Ayler-esque saxophone and nearly Cecil Taylor-like piano breaks that form lines of counterpoint against the screams of Esquerita (a seemingly alternate reality Little Richard) in his 1958, “Hey, Miss Lucy” as well as that glockenspiel that wound up in Buddy Holly’s contemporaneous “Everyday.” (But I also bet if I actually could know every early rock single ever recorded—an impossible task, especially considering that no one agrees on what the first rock record actually was—I’d find even earlier experimental proclivities.)
The simultaneous development of recording techniques and the coming of age of rock also resulted in music that humans could never replicate in live performance. The wonderful backward sounds that permeate The Beatles’ 1966 “Tomorrow Never Knows” are not too much of a leap beyond the production techniques that Phil Spector had already been using to embellish girl groups only a few years earlier, recordings that he actually described as “little symphonies for the kiddies.” But all of these recordings were still, in fact, songs. (A mere two years later The Beatles would go on to release a track they called “Revolution 9” which takes the background sounds in “Tomorrow Never Knows” to their logical conclusion—a dense musique concrète sound collage that lasts nearly nine minutes. I love it, but it is NOT a song despite how many of their fans may refer to it.)
The Beatles often get credited with transforming rock into a mature music for adult listeners. But with all due respect (and respect is indeed due) to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which I believe no less a musical eminence than Leonard Bernstein hailed as a song cycle worthy of Robert Schumann), more than rumor has it that the Fab Four were actually inspired to venture into unusual sonic territory because of similar journeys being attempted by Brian Wilson, often to the bafflement of his other brothers and cousin in Southern California. Although when most people think of The Beach Boys, they think of “California Girls,” what gets me (and what got Paul McCartney) excited about them are songs like “God Only Knows.”
And then there are the songs that Wilson wrote for what was to be ‘the greatest rock album ever made’, SMiLE, which had been scheduled for release in January 1967 but it remained in the vaults in its original form until October 2011. Much ink as well as pixels have been devoted to “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” which were to be bookended on SMiLE, but which wound up instead on the quickly sewn together, though still fascinating, Smiley Smile, which was released in September of that year. But I’d like you to listen to a song that had to wait much longer to see the light of day.
Although from its title you’d assume it was a prime example of their typical, happy-go-lucky early surfer rock fare, “Surf’s Up” is one of the weirdest pop songs ever released (which is something that Bernstein, too, acknowledged when he devoted a segment to it on an April 1967 CBS television broadcast). Aside from the crazy lyrics (by Van Dyke Parks) which include such obscure lines as “columnated ruins domino” (huh?), the harmonies wander all over the place, seemingly with no specific tonal goal, as does the vocal melody whose range far exceeds the abilities of most singers including Wilson himself when he attempted to reconstruct the original song in 2004 for Brian Wilson presents SMiLE. (For an interesting thought experiment compare Wilson’s performances of the lines “The glass was raised, the fired-roast, the fullness of the wine. A dim last toasting” in the performances featured in the video embed and the most recent link; both occur from 2:06 to 2:10.) Why Wilson needed to reconstruct his original performance so many years after the fact is an epic story and one that is probably not known to most people who heard the significantly reduced version of the song that finally did appear on the Beach Boys’ 1971 album that was actually called Surf’s Up.
But, fascinated as I am by “Surf’s Up,” I still ask myself if what fascinates me is the song itself or its recorded production. Of course, for more than half a century now they have largely become one and the same thing. I’ll let you ponder that claim while listening to some of my favorite productions of songs spanning the past fifty-odd years.
• The Jaynetts: “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (1963)
This bizarre song, featuring the stellar production work of Abner Spector (no relation to the more famous, though now infamous, producer Phil), is another extraordinary rule breaker—among other things, it never changes chords!
• Brian Eno: “Blank Frank” (1973)
I can’t resist this one for obvious reasons though I hope I’m not “the messenger” of anyone’s “doom” and “destruction.”
• Willie Colón with Ruben Blades: “Plastico” (1977)
Completely changing the vibe, as well as the language, this potent social commentary from the height of the disco era deceptively begins as a disco song but morphs through a subtle transformation, that’s as carefully mapped out as Elliott Carter’s metrical modulations, into salsa.
• Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)
By the time Talking Heads recorded this song, the evolution of punk into new wave was already old news, but the additional musical elements herein—which were largely the work of producer Brian Eno (see above) who was a de facto fifth member of the band at this point—transform David Byrne’s once raw songwriting into a multidimensional globally omnivorous musical idiom.
• Public Image Ltd.: “Round” (1985)
Again, elaborate production values have turned the snark of John Lydon (who a decade earlier had shocked audiences as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) into something way more introspective though just as extroverted and no less terrifying. My favorite line: “Don’t spit on my life!”
• Public Enemy: “Fight The Power” (1990)
Here, the raw anger of Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s politically-charged rapping is juxtaposed with a symphonic mélange of samples most of which are impossible to identify (though I swear I can hear a loop of a single note from the chorus of Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ reggae classic “I Shot The Sherriff” buried in there).
• Fiery Furnaces: “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry” (2006)
With siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the mainstays of the indie rock band Fiery Furnaces, we finally enter the 21st century. (It only took me four days!) In our time, the lines between so-called “Musical Composition” and “songwriting” have never been as porous (which, of course, is how it should be and which is why I profiled them on NewMusicBox in between my profiles of Charles Wuorinen and Jennifer Higdon). But aside from all the conceptual rigor in their music, I love all the oddball sonorities in it, like all the backward sound in this song.
• Corey Dargel: “Gay Cowboys” (2006)
Dargel, an academically trained composer, has described what he does as artsongwriting. To my ears, the only difference between what he’s doing (albeit from a compositional perspective) and what today’s most successful indie rock singer-songwriters do is that they’re richer and more famous than him, but hopefully that will change at some point…
• Grizzly Bear: “Two Weeks” (2009)
One of those successful indie rock singer-songwriters is Ed Droste, frontman for the Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear. Eight years later, I still frequently hear this song in shops, restaurants, etc. It’s one of the rare times I’m a willing involuntary audience.
Who is the auteur, the composer, the lyricist, the singer, or the arranger?
For the first installment of this series, I wrote primarily about songs by all kinds of singer-songwriters who not only created both the words and the music but were also the songs’ performers (most of the time playing the instrumental accompaniment in addition to singing). Then I looked at songs where these various roles are filled by different people—sometimes the result of a direct collaboration, but other times the by-product of composers being inspired by pre-existing poetry. Most of the interpretations for those songs would be something the song’s composers and lyricists would recognize as their own work, despite the distinctive personality of singers, their collaborative pianists, and other accompanying musicians involved in their performance.
But one of the most attractive qualities of a song’s performance is that it can sometimes be taken in a completely different direction by an interpreter. In some cases, so much that the song’s interpreter has made the song his or her own so completely and it feels like a completely different song from the original.
I must confess that I was not really a fan of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” back in the 1980s when it was ubiquitous on radio, in supermarkets, etc. I thought the song’s tune and lyrics were both somewhat one dimensional and that Jackson’s performance sounded overproduced. But when I heard Caetano Veloso perform it completely alone (just his voice and guitar), I immediately identified with his vulnerability and ambivalence. Similarly, the first time I heard John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads”, it sounded kinda stupid to me (blame it on my growing up in midtown Manhattan) as well as terribly midrange in its mix (not knowing at the time that it was intentionally produced this way for broadcast on AM radio). However, many years later, when I heard Toots and the Maytals’ raw, reggae recontextualization of it, I was floored. In both cases, I eventually went back to the originals and now have great respect for the songwriting craft that went into them. But arguably when I went back home to those originals I was hearing them in a completely different way which was only possible because someone else’s re-imagining took me there.
That re-imagining is a creative act in and of itself, akin to the imprint a director makes on a motion picture which the seminal film critics of Cahiers du Cinéma worshiped and defined as auteurship. When I listen to Caetano Veloso’s take on “Billie Jean,” I am probably responding more to the genius of Veloso than the genius of Michael Jackson, despite the song being ranked 58 by Rolling Stone magazine among the greatest songs of all time. And despite the original being named the official state anthem of West Virginia, “Take Me Home Country Roads” (which Denver actually co-wrote with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert) will always have more resonance for me when its saga of homesickness is adapted to West Jamaica (even though I’ve yet to travel there).
One of the defining aspects of hip-hop has been how it appropriates pre-existing musical material and turns it into something completely different. I was captivated by P.M. Dawn’s 1991 “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” the first time I heard it, but Spandau Ballet’s 1983 hit “True” took much longer to work its charms on me even though a sample from “True” is the principle building block for “…Memory Bliss.”
Attempting to go back to trace the origin of the song “You Are My Sunshine,” which was first recorded in August 1939 by an Atlanta-based duo who called themselves The Pine Ridge Boys, will get you tangled up in country roads that twist and turn and ultimately go nowhere. While the authorship is legally credited to Charles Mitchell and Jimmie Davis, a moderately successful country and gospel singer who served two terms as governor of the state of Louisiana (from 1944 to 1948 and again from 1960 to 1964), Davis and Mitchell—who were actually the third interpreters to record the song (in February 1940)—actually bought the rights to the song from Paul Rice, who had previously claimed authorship and was the second to record the song (in September 1939). Are you still with me? If so, the plot thickens. Parts of the song can be traced even further back, to Charles L. Johnson’s “Barber Pole Rag,” a two-step originally published for solo piano in 1911. That’s probably not the end of it, either.
But none of this back story ultimately has anything to do with the sublime brilliance of this extremely unorthodox 1962 interpretation of “You Are My Sunshine” by the George Russell Sextet which features the first prominent recorded experience of an extremely unusual vocalist named Sheila Jordan (who now, at the youthful age of 88, continues to tour the world and mesmerize audiences everywhere with her singing). At first, it’s impossible to tell that this is “You Are My Sunshine”; it sounds more like music by Edgard Varèse. When Russell eventually introduces the tune’s famous melody, it is harmonized with abrasive dissonances. But just when things seem to be going totally out of control, there is a sudden silence and then Jordan sings the song completely alone though she is eventually drowned out by the ensemble when they resume playing.
This is actually the recording that made me a lifelong jazz devotee after first hearing it in a jazz appreciation class I took as a Columbia University undergrad where it was played as an example of an ineffective interpretation—wrong! I was so dazzled by what I heard that I’ve spent decades tracking down everything else Russell and Jordan ever recorded (though sadly that’s the only time they ever recorded together). In fact, it’s what ultimately led me to track down Jordan and talk with her about it as well as everything else she’s ever done.
But it did not lead me to a greater appreciation of the original song “You Are My Sunshine.” (I’m not sure there is an original version of the song anyway.) Rather, it made me cognizant that interpretation can be as significant as composition. But who is the auteur of that stunning 1962 performance? It’s certainly not Jimmie Davis. (He didn’t actually write the song anyway, even though he was governor when the recording was made!) Was it George Russell, who was the mastermind behind the surreal arrangement? Or was it Sheila Jordan, who emerges from inside the performance like a rose growing through the cracks of a crumbing sidewalk?
Jazz often poses more questions than it answers. Like the glaringly out of tune and seemingly wrong note Miles Davis keeps plays in his classic 1956 quintet recording of “It Never Entered My Mind” which is sublime even though it ultimately has very little to do with the original conception of the song by Rodgers and Hart. Or Elmo and Bertha Hope’s 1961 reimagining of another Rodgers and Hart standard “My Heart Stood Still” which transforms the song into an elaborate chamber music composition for piano duo. Perhaps an even more dramatic transformation is the hour-long 1966 live in Japan performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 song “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali which begins with an extremely introspective 10-minute unaccompanied bass solo by Garrison that goes to places the Trapp Family never ventured. The most extreme example I can think of is Charles Mingus’s 1955 recasting of another song with a Hammerstein lyric, “All The Things You Are” from 1939, which features a melody by Jerome Kern, although when Mingus performed it he had pianist Mal Waldron interpolate Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C# minor, calling his new version “All The Things You C Sharp.” Five years later, Mingus dropped the piano—and most of both tunes (Kern’s and Rachmaninoff’s) completely—and called it “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.”
But all of this takes us extremely far away from the realm of song. Or does it? For decades, many jazz musicians have called the pieces of music they play songs whether or not their performances of them feature a singer as well as whether or not they’re performing pieces of music that were originally intended for performances featuring a singer. I’d still contend that once there’s no singer involved in the performance it’s no longer a song, but these days I seem to be drowned out by a vast chorus who think otherwise. Those folks should listen to how Sheila Jordan brings song back into George Russell’s otherwise desongified “You Are My Sunshine.” By remaking what was once a song back into a song, she beguiles us in a way that only a song can.
Marrying Words to Music
I began this series for the No Song is Safe From Us blog with an attempt to define what a song is at a time when the word is widely used in everyday speech to connote all music and also to attempt to try to understand what it is about songs that make them so popular to the point that they subsume any other kind of music-making in the greater public consciousness. I ultimately concluded that the appeal of songs stems from how they seamlessly meld music and words and, nowadays in the perceptions of most people, also blur the distinction between creation and interpretation. The singer of a song is a semi-magical alchemist who is able to blend words and music (whether his/her own or someone else’s, most folks assume it’s his/hers whether or not it actually is) into a powerful vehicle for personal expression. But many extraordinary songs were the product of more than one author.
A brief aside: I’ve encountered numerous songwriters over the years who are reluctant to identify themselves as “composers,” assuming that the exclusive writing of mere songs is somehow not worthy of so lofty a moniker. My usual response to such folks is: “Did you write the music for your songs?” And when they say yes I follow up with, “Then you’re a composer; did you also write the words for your songs?” And when they again say yes I say, “That means you’re actually a lyricist as well as a composer, so you’re actually more than just a composer.” Admittedly these exchanges can sometimes be more confounding than confidence-building to folks who feel excluded from the “composer” club, but it’s nevertheless an important conversation to have: the club isn’t and should never be so exclusive.
Some of the most popular composers were primarily composers (almost exclusively) of songs (almost exclusively). The golden age of the Broadway musical, which was the time when showtunes were the primary source material for American Popular Music, was dominated by a series of legendary songwriting teams who carved up the responsibility of creating songs into writing music and writing lyrics: Kander (music) and Ebb (lyrics); Lerner (lyrics) and Loewe (music); Rodgers (music) and first Hart (lyrics) and then Hammerstein (lyrics), to name some of the more famous examples. The music of George Gershwin may now be standard repertoire at orchestra concerts, but in his lifetime he was most known for the famous music he wrote for hundreds of song hits, most of which had words by his brother Ira. Once upon a time, music from Victor Herbert’s operettas was so popular that it was being played in restaurants all over the country, but he wasn’t paid for the honor. (Wow, how times have changed, or have they?) Anyway, Herbert joined forces with a bunch of other disgruntled creators seeking remuneration and that’s how ASCAP and the whole concept of performing rights for music creators was born. (An additional aside: the fact that a song is greater than the sum of its parts—words and music—actually has legal ramifications. Composers and lyricists who collaborate to write songs together have a 50%-50% share in the end product, both the music and the lyrics: that restaurant where musicians were performing Victor Herbert’s songs, even if they were doing instrumental versions, had to eventually fork over royalties not only to Victor Herbert but also to the lyricists he wrote the songs with as well.)
Since a song is a symbiotic melding of words and music, a collaboration between a composer and a lyricist almost has to be akin to what Star Trek fans know to be a Vulcan mind meld. The great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who most famously wrote songs with Richard Rodgers but also created some fabulous songs with Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern, and many others, once claimed that in the best songs the words and the music are married to each other so much so that it is impossible for most listeners to be able to discern which came first. I particularly love the Hammerstein-Kern song “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” which originally appeared in the musical Show Boat (which opened on Broadway in 1927, the same year that Dock Boggs showed up at a studio to record “Sugar Baby”). Every clever turn of phrase in Hammerstein’s lyric is matched by a similarly clever turn in Kern’s music. Every musical cadence has a corresponding punch line. My personal favorite: “Wild old men who’ll give you jewels and sables only live in Aesop’s fables.”
Part of what is so aesthetically satisfying about hearing words and music “marry” each other so well is that while it sounds so natural and easy, it’s actually rather difficult to pull off, especially in a collaborative context. As anyone who has ever been married knows, it’s a perpetual life challenge to get two individuals to be on the same page. And the stronger their personalities, the stronger the challenge. (Which is why when you find the one with whom it works is the “sweet mystery of life” as Rida Johnson Young claimed in the lyric to one of the most famous songs featuring music by Victor Herbert.)
But the difficulty goes beyond getting two people to agree to something that will result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The thing is, despite the conjecture proposed by archaeologist Steven Mithen (in his fascinating book The Singing Neanderthals) that they were one and the same phenomenon for mankind’s antecedents, music and language have morphed into extremely different cognitive realms. Ultimately, the goal of language is communication, whereas music evades precise meanings. I say the word table and (presuming you have even the most miniscule familiarity with the English language) you immediately draw a picture in your mind of what a table is, whereas Bb above middle C played on an oboe is merely Bb above middle C played on an oboe. However, when words are attached to music, the music suddenly has a specific immediate meaning and those words are also suddenly transported away from a specific linguistic context into something that can be universally appreciated. This is why you don’t need to comprehend Portuguese in order to love bossa nova.
Although the relationship between how we perceive music and language is extremely complex, as cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel has explicated very effectively in his exhaustive 2008 study Music, Language and the Brain, people actually listen to and process words and music quite differently, so a skill for one does not necessarily imply a skill for the other. I pride myself on having perfect pitch and yet, much to the chagrin of my in-laws, I am completely flummoxed in my attempts to distinguish and reproduce the nine different tones used in Cantonese.
This is perhaps also why I am so enamored of people who can successfully write both lyrics and music (like those singer songwriters who think they don’t belong in the composer community even though they are composers as well as lyricists). To briefly return to Broadway, there have been a few examples of folks who were equally masterful wordsmiths and tunesmiths—Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Jerry Herman, and Elizabeth Swados immediately come to mind. But curiously, two of the most significant Janus-headed creators—Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim—had successful careers as lyricists long before they were acknowledged for their musical brilliance. And yet, I could not imagine any other composer matching the verbal complexities of the dramatic dialog transformed into lyric in “Been a Long Day” (the ultimate pick up song) other than Loesser or anyone coming up with a better tune to fit the equally challenging dialog-duet “Barcelona” (the ultimate morning after song) than Sondheim.
Sometimes, of course, songwriters willfully subvert the seamless weaving of words with music intentionally. I still remember being startled the first time I heard extremely dysfunctional text setting in the 1990 hit “Been Caught Stealing” by the Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Jane’s Addition (written by two of the band’s members, bassist Eric Avery and singer/frontman Perry Farrell): “When I want something, I don’t want to pay for it.” The rhythm of the tune has nothing to do where the accents would fall if those words had been spoken. (The word that should be emphasized in the second clause of that sentence is “pay,” but instead the emphasis falls on “it.”) It’s completely wrong, but therein lies its charm. While Oscar Hammerstein II probably would not have been very impressed, to me it’s magical precisely because it breaks the rules and as a result calls attention to the extremely fragile relationship between sound and syntactical meaning.
That relationship is something all composers must be mindful of whenever they attempt to put music to words, something that is potentially even more challenging when the words being set already exist since there’s no way to negotiate revisions the way there could be with a lyric-writing collaborator. And the older or more famous the poem is, the more risky the prospect. If a work of art is already complete and has an independent reception history, is it really artistically valid to attempt to add something else to it?
Of course, the answer—for anyone who treasures the centuries of so-called “art song” repertoire—is a resounding yes. While I love the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire, I love their transformation into mélodies by Francis Poulenc even more. While I love the way the words cascade across the page in “Apollinaire’s tragic 1917 World War I poem “Bleuet”(a technique which presaged the concrete poetry movement of the 1960s by two generations), I treasure the emotional arc of Poulenc’s 1939 eve of World War II setting of it, which completely eschews the irregular typography (because how would you set that anyway?). (In addition to the very nice Felicity Lott/Pascal Rogé recording I linked to above, I’m also quite enamored of a recording of it by the recently deceased Nicolai Gedda accompanied by Dalton Baldwin, but that one isn’t currently available through YouTube. It is on Spotify, but why not just buy it?) Also, as someone who only studied French formally for three years (and the best I can do is engage in a little pleasant but not terribly profound small talk), I can identify with the playfulness of Apollinaire’s “Hôtel” all the more when I hear it as a Poulenc song lyric.
I have to confess, however, that some of my all-time favorite “art songs” are settings of poems I don’t know at all in languages that I completely don’t understand like Jean Sibelius’s sublimely beautiful 1917 “Norden” which I discovered through a stunning recording of Sibelius songs by soprano Karita Mattila accompanied on the piano by Ilmo Ranta which was released on the Finnish label Ondine. The text (in Swedish) is by the 19th century poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) who is hailed as a national treasure in Finland, but when I was first smitten with this song I had no idea what the words were about and, like those fans of bossa nova who can’t comprehend Portuguese, I didn’t care. That is not to say that it isn’t a lovely poem and when I did find a translation of it and was finally able to understand it, it made me appreciate Sibelius’s intense ultraromantic and hyperchromatic setting of it all the more.
But I should probably make my point about how a great poem can be made even greater through a sensitive musical setting with something in a language that everyone reading this blogpost can understand, so for that I’ll point you all to a fabulously creepy 1950 poem about a visit to the poet Ezra Pound in an insane asylum by the great American poet by Elizabeth Bishop called “Visits to St. Elizabeth’s.” A mere seven years later it was set to music by one of the most prolific art song composers of all time—Ned Rorem (b. 1923).
Part of what makes Rorem’s setting so effective, aside from the extremely manic vocal line is the demonic piano accompaniment, a seemingly endless cascade of figurations that teeter at the edge of sanity as well as playablity even when played by its composer as it is in this performance featuring soprano Regina Sarfaty that was recorded very soon after the song was written.
Strangely though, as much as I’m completely awed by that song every time I hear it, my favorite Rorem song will probably always be his 1946 “Alleluia” which is really not remarkable text setting at all since it only features one word—the title! But since he does so much with so little (and the whole thing’s in seven as well!), you don’t even completely realize that’s all there is unless you’re focusing exclusively on the lyrics, and why would you be? It’s admittedly not an equitable marriage, but it’s an extremely happy one. And Susan Graham’s performance of it with Malcolm Martineau, no pun intended, is divine.
Can Song Be Explained in a World Where Everything’s a Song?
Having become a huge fan of NYFOS only somewhat recently (within the last four seasons), I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a week of posts to No Song is Safe from Us. But I must confess to feeling quite challenged by the task of coming up with just a single song each day over the course of these five days. I probably listen to several hours worth of music every day—either in live performances or at home listening to my ever expanding LP and CD collection (which at last count, a few years ago, exceeded 30,000 discs and covers several walls of my apartment from ceiling to floor). And many—but not all—of the pieces of music I listen to are songs.
This is somewhat difficult to explain to people who have been programmed to think that all pieces of music are songs. The use of the word song as a catch-all phrase for any musical composition by most people who are not directly involved with the composing, performing, and promotion of music—and sadly even among some folks who are—is, I think, one of the more pernicious malapropisms of our time. It makes it extremely difficult to explain the distinctions between different kinds of musical creations and, perhaps even worse, it renders inconsequential what makes an actual song something that is so extraordinary. The symbiotic fusion of words and music into a deeply personal and relatively brief—though if done right, seemingly timeless—sonic unit is something that is pure alchemy. Although like water, they are the result of a combination of two distinct elements, songs flow into our ears as indivisible in the same way that no one drinking water thinks much about whether the hydrogen or the oxygen tastes better. For the songs we treasure, we cannot hear an instrumental version of the tune without immediately recalling the words and vice versa: if we read a printout of the lyrics, we instantly hear the melody in our minds. What makes us so attached to certain songs is that when sung, the lyrics carry even more meaning than they would if they remained just poetry on a page and the music is also further heightened by the words that are attached to it.
Just like we can’t imagine life without water, it is impossible to imagine a world without songs. Songs have arguably been with us since we’ve had music and language. Archeologist Steven Mithin, in his wonderful book The Singing Neanderthals, has pondered a prehistoric era where before they had developed separate abilities to create and understand language and music, our forebears had something that was a bizarre amalgam of the two, a kind of proto-song. And, indeed the earliest surviving musical composition –a Hurrian hymn from many millennia later, the 14th century B.C.E. to be exact—is a song.
While the concerns of our own time seem very far away from such ancient history, the seeming omnipresence of inseparable units of words and music in human consciousness perhaps goes a long way towards explaining why it is so tempting to think that everything is a song, even though for thousands of years both of these elements have evolved independent of each other in extraordinary ways as well—whether transformed into sonnets, plays, novels, or, say, chemistry textbooks on the one hand versus everything from raga improvisations, all-night gamelan performances, symphonies, and ringtones on the other. The fact that words and music can be so many other things on their own yet still sound indissoluble when they come together in a song makes the continued existence of song nowadays an even more magical phenomenon.
Perhaps one thing that makes our own time so different from earlier eras is that we have become so accustomed to permanent recordings of songs. Once upon a time, a song could only survive if it were passed down from generation to generation or if someone was able to find a way to write down the words (an impossibility in preliterate cultures) and the music (a still more daunting task since musical notation only evolved in a handful of societies). But even the songs that survived would need to be recreated anew in order to exist as anything more than fleeting memories, since the performances of these songs in real time were as ephemeral as a spritz of a floral perfume or a meaty glass of wine, or indeed a refreshing cup of pure water. Now, thanks to more than a century of recordings, songs and specific performances of them can be as long-lasting as architectural landmarks. At the dawn of the 21st century, we have instantaneous access to songs from everywhere and everywhen in the world.
And yet, most people still cling to a handful of favorites, often choosing from a very limited range of mainstream commercial popular music that seems ubiquitous. In fact, the pop music that is so omnipresent has not only trained us to think that every piece of music is a song, since pretty much the only musical form that is used in pop music is song, it has also trained us to imagine that a specific recorded performance of a particular song is the only possible performance of that song. We have become so used to hearing the same recordings of specific songs that the abstract composition of a song and its realization in a specific recorded interpretation have become as indistinguishable as words and music in a song. For people who assemble the music they want to hear again into iTunes directories, not only are all pieces of music called songs, those songs are usually credited to a single creator, the singer or group performing the song. Though those folks are sometimes also the people who created the music and the lyrics for those songs, songs are frequently the creation of other people who are not the interpreters on a specific recording.
But whether the authorship of a song is verifiable or simply an alternative fact, the deeply personal essence of the artistic expression that is song makes listeners immediately identify with the singer of a song. And the most effective singers in any musical idiom make the songs they sing their own, even if they didn’t actually write them. Of course, some of the most moving interpreters of songs are the folks who actually did write them. While the term singer-songwriter has only been in common parlance for less than a half century, it can be traced back to the Troubadours of Medieval Europe and even further back in oral traditions from all over the world.
So the first song I want to feature here is a performance by a solo performer where music, words, singing, and instrumental accompaniment actually do come together as a unified totality. It’s not quite as old as that Hurrian Hymn or the chivalric serenades of the Troubadours, though it’s from a few generations before the people we immediately call to mind when we think of singer-songwriters. “Sugar Baby,” recorded on March 9, 1927, was one of the earliest recordings of American country music. The performer, an Appalachian coal miner named Dock Boggs (1898-1971), made only a handful of recordings during his late 20s and early 30s after which he was subsequently forgotten for decades. But thanks to the inclusion of this recording on the legendary Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music issued on 6 LPs by Folkways Records in 1952, Boggs was rediscovered toward the end of his life by the folk revivalists and made a few additional recordings. (“Sugar Baby” has apparently been a longtime favorite of Bob Dylan who recorded his own version of it in 2001.)
There’s an extremely thorough analysis of this song and how Boggs came to record it on Alexander M. Stern’s blog Where Dead Voices Gather: Life at 78 RPM, so there’s no need for me to obsess over any of those details here. Suffice it to say the reason I chose this song to accompany the opening of my series this week is that it very successfully illustrates the unity of words and music as well as composition and performance—qualities that encapsulate why songs are such an effective expressive medium. I specifically wanted to choose something from relatively early in the history of recorded sound to address what distinguishes how we perceive musical reality—specifically the reality of experiencing songs—from listeners who heard songs before the era of sonic permanence. Though the audibly pre-digital—in fact pre-stereo, pre-HiFi, barely post-electrical—quality of the audio recording of “Sugar Baby” let’s you know immediately that this recording is a remnant from a long-gone world, Boggs’ raw performance (just his intense, almost angry voice accompanied only by his own insistent banjo clawhammering) and the lyrics’ matter-of-fact portrayal of relationship disillusionment (“All I can do— fuss, eat, sleep with you—and I can’t get along this-a way”) speak directly to our own era of post-existential, post-post-modern ennui, setting a tone that is more visceral and direct that any other break-up song I can think of and I’ve heard a ton of them.
Yes, I know, it seems counterintuitive and maybe just a little bit mean spirited to begin a series of posts that celebrates why we love songs, and the inseparability of words and music, with a song about breaking up. So, in the spirit of more is more, I’ll conclude here with a list of additional listening suggestions: a small handful of other favorite, indivisible singer-songwriter creations (albeit from a more catholic definition of singer-songwriter than what you might immediately assume from your associations with the term) which span the remainder of the 20th century (we’ll eventually get to the 21st), though as you’ll hear as the century played out there’s perhaps more turbulence than joy in a great deal of it.
• Robert Johnson: “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (1936)
(He was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in order to perform like this, and his occasional falsetto injections on this song are particularly otherworldly.)
• Memphis Minnie: “In My Girlish Days” (1941)
(While the history of early blues is dominated by male singer-songwriters, this Louisiana songstress could challenge any of them.)
• Hank Williams: “Move It On Over” (1947)
(I can’t feature a list of alternatives to an assertive break-up song without a song about getting put in the doghouse.)
• Buddy Holly: “Every Day” (1958)
(I’m obsessed with the glockenspiel on this, which is something I’ll be writing more about later this week so stay tuned…)
• Bob Dylan: “Desolation Row” (1965)
(Aside from being the person most people think of when they hear the term “singer-songwriter,” he’s now a Nobel Laureate, so I had to include him.)
• Joni Mitchell: “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” (1977) [6’39”]
(I was actually rooting for her to get the Nobel…)
• Lydia Lunch (with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks): “Baby Doll” (1979)
(There’s probably no way she’d ever get a Nobel, but I guarantee you that if she did, it would stir up even more debates than Dylan’s win did.)
• Prince: “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” (1982)
(Though he sounds like he is performing with a small ensemble, he is actually completely alone here which takes the notion of a solo performer to a completely different level in the age of studio recordings.)
• Tori Amos: “Me and a Gun” (1992)
(Finally, she actually is completely alone, just a voice with no accompaniment, which makes this frightening and extremely disturbing song all the more powerful.)
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