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!