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 arethe 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.)
Originally posted on February 27, 2017.