Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blue Yodel (#2)

Slightly over a week ago, I posted a blog entry on the yodel, followed by a second entry on the so-called “blue yodel.” At the time I posted the first entry, I fully realized that the issue regarding the relationship between the American cultural origins of the yodel and its subsequent use in popular music demanded more extensive treatment than what I was giving it, although the insights were quite valid, if also quite general. In the second, follow-up post, a short entry containing a link to an article exploring the possible origins of the blue yodel, I mentioned the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. However, in that second post, I neglected to mention the rather significant figure of Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a former minstrel show performer—a white man who performed in blackface—and recording artist about whose life little is known except what has been excavated by certain dedicated music historians, among them, most especially, Nick Tosches. As Tosches points out in his fascinating and well-researched exploration into the life (or rather, what little is known of his life) and times of Emmett Miller, titled Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown and Co., 2001), Miller’s musical career is, sadly, largely undocumented, primarily because the portable recording equipment that could have captured his act in the late Teens and early Twenties didn’t yet exist (he did make several recordings in the late 1920s, however, backed by the Georgia Crackers). And while there is no hard evidence establishing the influence of Emmett Miller on Jimmie Rodgers, at the very least there is one of convergence, as both were drawing on a tradition of which both appeared to be quite knowledgeable. Tosches observes, “Were it not for the black sources from which Rodgers [and Emmett Miller] drew, there would have been no substance through which to wreak the rare brilliance of his style.” (97)

About the relationship between Miller and Rodgers, Tosches writes:

. . . it is with . . . [Emmett Miller’s] Miami engagement of July 1926, that the phrase “yodeling blues” does indeed appear to be for the first time applied to a style, an inflection, of singing: the style and inflection of singing that Emmett Miller had given voice to since at least the earliest recorded evidence of it, in 1924, and, as fully developed as that earliest evidence is, almost certainly for some years predating that evidence. That style, that inflection—that wild rushing flight of swarming inflections—eludes and defies any other more accurate single word. And yet it cried for a name. For while powers need no names, nothing can be sold without a name.

Thus, sometime between the spring and summer of 1926, either from wile and wit within or bestowed, or raised from the common, spreading descriptive of the fleeting masses of his fleeting fame, Emmett Miller became the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer. (70-71)

As is well known, Rodgers’s first recording session for Victor took place on 4 August 1927, although this session contained nothing close to his famous blue yodeling style. Indeed, his first blue yodel recording, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas),” did not take place until 30 November 1927, which, as Tosches points out, was sixteen months after Miller had been labeled “the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer.”


It is irrefutable that, as Jerry Lee Lewis said, again and again, Jimmie Rodgers was, essentially and above all, a stylist. There were, as Jerry Lee saw it, only four stylists that ever mattered a damn: Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Hank Williams, and himself. Of these four, only Williams was a songwriter of significance; and, even in his case, his biggest success, far from being an original composition, was a version of Emmett Miller’s rendition of “Lovesick Blues.” (97)

About Jimmie Rodgers’s vocal style, Michael Jarrett has written:

Rodgers’s style frequently seems an imitation, a simplification, of Miller’s. Which is not to declare Rodgers a pretender. (Installing Miller as an original is equally problematic, given his now obscure but equally certain “borrowings.” ) It’s to emphasize a key point about the blue yodel: This device, critical to distinguishing white country music from black blues, arrives already vexed. To whom should Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard pay tribute? (230)

For those interested, footage of Emmett Miller performing in blackface has been posted on; footage of Jimmie Rodgers performing “T For Texas” has also been posted on as well.

Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather. Little, Brown and Co., 2001.
Charles Wolfe, Liner notes to Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man From Georgia. Columbia/Legacy, 1996. Reissued 2001.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Family Moth Head Confesses

Previously, in my entries of May 16, May 31, July 1, July 22, August 18, September 8, and October 8, I have discussed at length my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the calendar year 1968 in the order in which they were released. Please refer to these earlier blog entries for the explanation for such an unusual project (and all many pitfalls). Listed below is the December 1968 listening schedule, for anyone wishing to duplicate my experiment. I’ve reiterated many times that I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work to improve it. If you look back over the previous postings, you'll notice that I have continued to add to, and revise, them once I've received new or updated information. Here's the list I have assembled for December 1968, as well as a list of albums I refer to as "the remainder," those albums for which I could not determine a month of release. Hopefully that list will be diminished as I continue to work on this project.

13th Floor Elevators, Bull of the Woods
The Animals, Love Is
Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, [The Lost Concert Tapes] 12/13/68 [2003]
The Monkees, Head
The Neon Philharmonic, The Moth Confesses
Harry Nilsson, Skidoo
The Pretty Things, S. F. Sorrow
The Rolling Stones, [Rock and Roll Circus] 12/11/68 [VHS 1996; DVD 2004]
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
Tom Rush, The Circle Game
Santana, [Live at the Fillmore] 12/19-22 [1997]
The Soft Machine, The Soft Machine
Spirit, The Family That Plays Together
James Taylor, James Taylor
Stevie Wonder, For Once in My Life
Neil Young, Neil Young

The Remainder:
American Blues, American Blues Is Here
Aphrodite’s Child, Aphrodite’s Child
Aphrodite’s Child, Rain & Tears
Asylum Choir, Look Inside
Arthur Brown, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Can, [Delay 1968]
The Fraternity of Man, The Fraternity of Man
The Great Society, Conspicuous Only in its Absence
Richard Harris, A Tramp Shining
The Idle Race, The Birthday Party
Albert King, Live Wire/Blues Power
Melanie, Born to Be
The Millennium, Begin
The Moving Sidewalks, Flash
The Pacific Gas & Electric Blues Band, Get It On
Pearls Before Swine, Balaklava
Shocking Blue, Beat With Us
Silver Apples, Silver Apples
Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf The Second
The Sundowners, Captain Nemo
The Troggs, Mixed Bag

Thursday, November 27, 2008

X The Unknown

X is typically used as the variable (the unknown quantity) in algebraic equations. According to this post by Dr. Ali Khounsary of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, one possible reason why the letter X is used to denote the unknown factor in algebraic equations dates back to the origins of algebra itself in Arabic civilization. Dr. Khounsary writes:

Algebra has its roots in the Middle East where sciences including mathematics and astronomy flourished in the Islamic world in the 700-1450 period. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (780­-850) was one of the major mathematicians of his time and the author of a number of influential books. One of his major books is on arithmetic and another on algebra. In fact, it is his transmuted name ‘algorithm’ which we now use to refer to the step-by-step procedures for solving a problem. His algebra book is titled Kitab al-jabr wal-muqabala which translates to “the book of calculation by completion and reduction.” The Arabic word “al-jabr” is the origin of the word “algebra” which describes the process of moving terms from one side of an algebraic equation to the other to find the value of an unknown. . . .

In algebraic equations, one solves equations to obtain the value(s) of one or more unknown(s). The word for “thing” or “object” (presumably unknown thing or object) in Arabic—which was the principal language of sciences during the Islamic civilization—is “shei” which was translated into Green as xei, and shortened to x, and is considered by some to be the reason for using x. It is also noteworthy that “xenos” is the Greek word for unknown, stranger, guest, or foreigner, and that might explain the reasons Europeans used the letter x to denote the “unknown” in algebraic equations.

Xenos, of course, is the root of the word xenophobia: the fear of foreigners or strangers. Interestingly, as it happened, the call letters of all Mexican radio stations—also referred to as “border radio”—begin with an X. The first Mexican radio station, located in Reynosa, started broadcasting in 1930, with the call letters XED, possibly a pun on “crossed [Xed] out,” a reference to the marginalized and dispossessed. Only one major company uses X in its name—Xerox—and very few bands have used X in the group’s proper name—X-ray Spex (a play on "X-ray Specs," ads for which used to appear in comic books, pictured), the L. A. punk band X, and XTC come to mind—and very few albums and songs have used X in the title. One should perhaps remember that X is also an abbreviation for Christ, as in “Xmas,” and that once John Lennon named an album Shaved Fish, perhaps a play on ICTHUS, the Greek word for “fish”—ICTHUS being an acrostic referring to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Some Albums:
Electric Light Orchestra, Xanadu
David Lindley, El Rayo-X
Iron Maiden, The X Factor
Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu
Def Leppard, X
Mushroomhead, XX
Toto, XX (1977-97)

Some Songs:
Blondie, “X Offender”
Coldplay, “X & Y”
John Lennon, Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Mushroomhead, “Xeroxed”
Olivia Newton-John, “Xanadu”
Rush, “Xanadu”
System Of A Down, “X”
U2, “Xanax and Wine”
Frank Zappa, “Project X”
ZZ Top, “Heard It On The X”

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiber Y

According to an article that can be found in the Time magazine on-line archives, the synthetic fabric Qiana (“kee-ah-nah”)—the name the result of a computer generating random combinations of letters—was introduced by Du Pont Laboratories in June 1968. Apparently the fabric took twenty years to develop. Thus research on the fabric that was eventually named Qiana—a light-weight, nylon-like fabric intended to be a simulacrum of silk—dates back to the years that comprised the collapse of Swing music in post-World War II America (in 1948, Du Pont's nylon was then a decade old). The Time magazine article, dated 5 July 1968, also contains the following information:

Boasting qualities that are superior to the most luxurious silk fabrics, Qiana gives all the appearance of silk. . . . It took 20 years and $75 million to develop (compared with $27 million for nylon). Thus it was no wonder that the security at Du Pont’s Chattanooga, Tenn., pilot plant took on Pentagon proportions. To the trade, it was known simply as “Fiber Y.” Even at the press preview, Du Pont took no chances of leaking the process before it hits the market at year’s end. Six models wearing Qiana garments were escorted by armed guards to prevent any overanxious competitor from the common practice of snipping a sample swatch. The versatile new fabric, which sells for about $5 to $8 per pound (versus $9.30 for silk), will be found initially only in women’s fine apparel, but eventually will be used in all types of clothing. For Du Pont . . . costly Qiana is not expected to mean an overnight boom.

Indeed, clothing made of Qiana was not “an overnight boom,” just as the Time article predicted—it took a few years. But . . . when Qiana caught on, a few years later, it had become the disco fabric of choice. Qiana is to 1970s disco music what flannel is to grunge, what the tie-died cotton shirt is to Sixties psychedelic rock. In Saturday Night Fever (1977)—the film that is to the disco era what Woodstock is to the 1960s—whenever Tony Manero (John Travolta), a member of the vast working class of America used to the sweat that comes from hard labor, took to the discotheque dance floor, he wore a cool, light-weight, faux-silk Qiana shirt.

Eventually, though, this synthetic fabric became an emblem of the tawdry artifice that many saw in disco music (a form of urban pop). Subsequently, as disco music fell from favor, so too did Qiana. Clothing made of Qiana, inexpensive but trendy, became the style of clothing that for many represented the plasticity (artifice) of disco music. Conversely, by the late 1980s—by which time Qiana shirts numbering in the scores could be found in Goodwill stores throughout the United States—flannel came to represent the putative working-class “authenticity” of grunge. Thus it happened that Du Pont’s Qiana gave way to L. L. Bean.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Yodel

An update on my post from yesterday titled “Yodel”: Bent Sørensen (find the link to his blog on the right) kindly shared the URL for a short blog entry he wrote a few weeks back on his Tumblr, Ordinary Finds, about Jimmie Rodgers, which in turn contains a link to an article titled “America’s Blue Yodel” on the possible black origins of Jimmie Rodgers’ “blue yodel.” The serendipity of our both posting on Jimmie Rodgers within a short period of time suggests another remarkable way in which our interests overlap; as usual I thank Bent very much for sharing this fascinating piece of information.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strictly Commercial?

Earlier this month I posted a blog entry on Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series of books examining classic albums of the rock era. A couple of weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted a list of the first ten proposals he’s received so far for new books in the series, none of which—so he avers—he’s yet read. While it is a little too early yet to get any real sense of the range of groups and albums that will be submitted, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is a little too early yet in the series’ publishing history to give up on albums of the classic rock era. As Mr. Barker has made clear, Continuum is looking to sell books, and I have no problem with this policy as long as it doesn’t prevent albums that have proved their durability through time from being neglected for the sake of potential book sales. Case in point: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) sold six million copies in its first six months, but sold fewer than two million in the next twelve years. The question is whether the commercial success of an album (at least in its first year) qualifies it for consideration as a "classic" album. I suppose he would say that he might be convinced if the proposal were good enough. At any rate, the proposals he’s received so far are for books on albums by:

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Yo La Tengo

In my earlier entry I stated that an album ripe for discussion would be The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, and while I have no idea if the book proposal is for this album specifically, I strongly suspect it is. I would welcome a book on that album, and depending upon the particular album, the books on The Jam, Van Halen, and Jefferson Airplane interest me, while the other groups on the list only marginally so.

On a different note, Mr. Barker posted a fascinating excerpt from the forthcoming 33 & 1/3 book by Bruce Eaton on Big Star’s Radio City, another installment in the 33 & 1/3 series that I look forward to reading (click on the above link to Mr. Barker's blog to read the excerpt). I have not yet submitted my book proposal to Mr. Barker, but I hope to do so by December 1, well before the deadline of December 31st. The last time such a call for proposals was posted, I think the proposals numbered around 400, with about 20 of those being accepted for publication. As I mentioned earlier, my proposal on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West was rejected, but I intend to submit another proposal this time as well.


According to the OED, the English word “yodel” is derived from the German jodeln, meaning, “to sing or warble with interchange of the ordinary and falsetto voice, in the manner of Swiss and Tyrolese mountaineers.” But while strongly associated with these mountaineers, the yodel is a form of singing known throughout the world. According to Bart Plantenga, author of Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, “the law of yodeling” is written in the epiglottis, an elastic band of cartilage located at the root of the tongue that folds over the glottis (trachea) in order to prevent food and liquid from entering the trachea during the act of swallowing (13). Initially a form of singing confined to the mountains of Kentucky—that is, a feature of “hillbilly” music—eventually the yodel helped to define “western,” as in “country western,” music. According to Michael Jarrett, it was Jimmie Rodgers’ “Yodeling Cowboy,” recorded on 22 October 1929, that designated the “shift in the connotations that would eventually redefine country music as mythically “western,” not “hillbilly” (182). And while you practice your yodel, you might want to wear a Nudie suit while listening, first, to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” series of recordings. A-DEE-oh-lay-EE-tee.

Bart Plantenga, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, 2003)

A Good Yodeler Is Hard To Find, But Here Are Some Essential Recordings:
Eddy Arnold, “Cattle Call” The Essential Eddy Arnold (RCA)
Focus, “Hocus Pocus” Moving Waves (Capitol)
Merle Haggard, “Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)” Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimme Rodgers (Koch)
Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, “The Yodel Song” Alive in America (Renaissance)
Emmett Miller, “Lovesick Blues” The Minstrel Man From Georgia (Columbia/Legacy)
Jimmie Rodgers, The Essential Jimmie Rodgers (RCA)
Roy Rogers, “The Devil’s Great Grandson” The King of the Cowboys (Living Era)
Sly and the Family Stone, “Spaced Cowboy” There’s a Riot Going On (Epic)
Don Walser, Rolling Stone From Texas (Watermelon)
Slim Whitman, Greatest Hits (Curb)
Hank Williams, 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor)
Various Artists, American Yodeling, 1911—1946 (Living Era)
Various Artists, Cattle Call, Early Cowboy Music and Its Roots (Rounder)
Various Artists, The Ultimate Yodelling Collection (Castle/Pulse)

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Watusi

The name of the early Sixties popular dance called the “watusi” is obviously African (for instructions on how to dance it, go here), and while there was a film released in 1959 titled Watusi (a remake of King Solomon’s Mines [1950]), the name was widely popularized in America in 1962. In June 1962, a United Nations General Assembly resolution terminated the Belgian trusteeship of Rwanda (then spelled Ruanda), and granted full independence both to Rwanda and Burundi effective 1 July, 1962, to be governed by Tutsi (Batutsi) leadership. Hearing the name in early 1962 and liking the sound of it, Kal Mann, a songwriter at Cameo-Parkway Records, subsequently wrote “The Wah-Watusi,” eventually recorded by The Orlons, a vocal quartet from Philadelphia. “The Wah-Watusi” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on 9 June 1962 and remained on the Hot 100 chart for over three months. That same year, Chris Kenner recorded perhaps his most famous hit, “Land of 1000 Dances,” containing the lyric, “Do the watusi like my little Lucy.” “Land of 1000 Dances” was later covered by Cannibal & the Headhunters (1965), Wilson Pickett (1966), and Patti Smith (1975). Wilson Pickett’s version is perhaps the most well-known of the many versions of the song recorded over the years.

And while the dance known as the watusi sustained its popularity at least through 1962, the next year Puerto Rico jazz musician Ray Barretto’s recording titled “El Watusi” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on 27 April 1963 (in other words, about a year after “The Wah-Watusi”) and remained on the Hot 100 chart for over two months. Apparently filmmaker Martin Scorsese was a fan of “El Watusi,” as he included it on the soundtrack to his film Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). Later, Brian De Palma used Barretto’s “El Watusi” in Carlito’s Way (1993). Meanwhile, the watusi—although by then the dance craze had long faded away—appears in the Sidney Poitier-starring film The Slender Thread (released December 1965), and two years later, having transformed into a signifier no longer referring simply to a form of benign dance, but to the possibility of miscengenation, the watusi is invoked in another Sidney Poitier-starring film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), in which Poitier tells Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, “You folks dance the watusi; we are the watusi.”

Suggested Reading:
Garza, Oscar. 2005. “Land of a Thousand Dances: An R&B Fable.” Popular Music 24.3: 429-437.

Chris Kenner, “Land of 1000 Dances” Land of 1000 Dances (Collector’s Choice)
Cannibal & the Headhunters, “Land of 1000 Dances”
Land of 1000 Dances: The Complete Rampart Recordings (Varese Fontana)
Wilson Pickett, “Land of 1000 Dances”
Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits (Atlantic/WEA)
Patti Smith, “Land”
Horses (Arista)
Mud Boy & the Neutrons, “Land of 1000 Shotguns (Part 2)”
They Walk Among Us (Koch)
The Orlons, “The Wah-Watusi”
The Best of the Orlons Cameo Parkway 1961-1966 (Abkco)
The Ventures, “The Wah-Watusi”
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy/Going to the Ventures Dance Party (One Way)

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Ictus and the Remiss

The word ictus is derived from the Latin icere, to hit with a stroke, the stress placed upon an accentuated syllable. Etymologically speaking, therefore, ictus means accent or emphasis, and in the language of music, ictus means an accented or marked tone. In the study of prosody, dum, for instance, is a metrically strong syllable—the ictus. In contrast, de is a metrically weak syllable—the remiss. The ictus and the remiss together constitute the foot (dum-de), and hence the foot and the ictus make up the rhythmic elements of music. For music theorists, the moment prior to the initiation of the ictus represents the downbeat: the critical moment when the conductor lowers his baton. To understand fully the function of the ictus is to understand funk, with its accentuation of the downbeat (as opposed to R&B’s emphasis on the backbeat), meaning the One, the first (and occasionally third) beat of every measure (foot). George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and James Brown all contributed to the invention of the funk “groove”—that is, they all understood the function of the ictus.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Funky Grooves (Guaranteed To Tear The Roof Off):

David Bowie, “Fame” Young Americans
The Brothers Johnson, “Get the Funk Out Ma Face”
Look Out For #1
James Brown, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”
20 All-Time Greatest Hits
Chic, “Le Freak”
Dance, Dance, Dance: The Best of Chic
Curtis Mayfield, “Superfly”
Funkadelic, “(Not Just) Knee Deep (Part I)”
The Best of Funkadelic, 1976—1981
The Meters, “Africa”
Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology
The Ohio Players, “Fire”
Funk on Fire: The Mercury Anthology
Parliament, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”
Parliament’s Greatest Hits
Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”
Greatest Hits
Steely Dan, “Black Cow”
War, “Low Rider”
Anthology, 1970-1994
Stevie Wonder, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”
Fulfillingness First Finale

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mitch Mitchell, 1947-2008

News reports indicate that Mitch Mitchell (at the right in the picture, with Hendrix and Noel Redding, left), the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was found dead yesterday morning in his Oregon hotel room. He was 61 years old. Reports say Mitchell was found dead shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday in his room at the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland. He apparently died of natural causes. The article reporting his death from the L. A. Times can be found here. Mitchell was the last the trio to live; they are all gone now.

The Sound of Money

There is an oft-repeated story that once when Chet Atkins, at the time the country & western music producer at RCA Victor, was asked to describe the so-called “Nashville sound” he helped to create, he shook the loose change in his pocket and replied, “It’s the sound of money.” His response was not so much evasive as it was a statement of fact, for the post-World War II rise of the Nashville or “countrypolitan” sound was in fact a way to address the general problem of how to make money. Essentially the “Nashville sound” was pop production (studio engineering) applied to country songs. As Michael Jarrett observes, the Nashville sound was an attempt to refashion country & western as “pop music for adults” (p. 256). The two primary architects of the Nashville sound were Chet Atkins at RCA Victor and Owen Bradley at Decca. The Nashville sound might be best understood by looking at the following set of structural oppositions, the features characterizing the “Honky Tonk” sound—the pre-war sound of c&w that continued through the mid-50s or so—on the left, with the features of the Nashville sound on the right:

  • Raw/Cooked
  • Found/Made
  • Folk/Pop
  • Fiddles/Strings
  • Volume/Crooning
  • Kitty Wells/Patsy Cline
  • Jimmie Rodgers/Jim Reeves
  • "T For Texas"/"He’ll Have to Go"
Faced with the competition of rock ‘n’ roll (or “rockabilly”), the country & western industry reinvented itself as a pop music industry, adapting pop music song structures and pop music production (studio engineering). Hence early examples of rock musicians making country albums (e.g., The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968) can be understood not so much as “country rock” but as attempts to recover a rawer, more “authentic” form of country & western music, one that hearkened back to a time prior to the invention of the "slick" Nashville sound.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Spider Dreams

The tarantula is clearly the favored arachnid both in music and the movies. Not only does the tarantula have a movie named in its honor (the John Agar-starring Tarantula, 1955), but also a dance. According to the Dictionary of Dance, the tarantella is an Italian folk dance executed in accelerating 3/8 or 6/8 time that takes its name from the Italian seaport of Taranto where, legend has it, in the fourteenth century people who had been bitten by a tarantula contracted tarantism, a peculiar disorder characterized by an uncontrollable need to dance. The supposed cure for tarantism was to dance the tarantella, which was to be performed until the spider’s poison (not deadly, but quite painful) was sweated out of one’s system. There have been ballets based on the tarantella, including Coralli’s La Tarentule (1839), but Swan Lake contains an even more famous instance of the tarantella. Nino Rota drew on Italian folk music to compose a tarantella for The Godfather, while Mario Lanza performs “Tarantella” in For the First Time (1959), his last movie.

A Few Representative Recordings:

Al Caiola, “Sicilian Tarantella,” Italian Guitars
Charlie Haden Quartet West, “Tarantella +,”
In Angel City
Mario Lanza, “Tarantella,
For the First Time/Mario Lanza Sings Caruso Favorites
The Lounge Lizards, “Tarantella,” Voice of Chunk
Evan Lurie, “Tarantella,”
Selling Water by the Side of the River
Turtle Island String Quartet, “Texas Tarantella,”
Spider Dreams
Squirrel Nut Zippers, “La Grippe,”
The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers
Various, “Tarantella,”
The Alan Lomax Collection: Folk Music and Song of Italy
Various, “Tarantella,”
Music for an Italian Wedding


A “juke” or “juke joint,” according to, is “a roadside or rural establishment offering liquor, dancing, and often gambling and prostitution.” “Jookin’” means to play dance music, especially in a juke. The word is derived from the Gullah word juke or jook, meaning “disorderly, wicked,” and is of West African origin; it is akin to the Wolof word dzug, “to live wickedly,” and the Bambara word dzugu, meaning “wicked.” While the multiselection, coin-operated phonograph was invented in the early twentieth century, this particular form of technology was not referred to as a “jukebox” until after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Afterwards, companies such as Seeburg, Rowe International (then known as Automated Musical Instruments, or AMI), and Wurlitzer were able to install thousands of these automated, random access machines in various establishments, not only in juke joints but in drugstores furnished with small dance floors. For various reasons, after World War II, teenagers were not as inclined to dance but stand and listen, and jukeboxes were relegated to bars and beauty parlors. In the 1950s, with the rise of the portable phonograph and the vast popularity of the 45-rpm record, teenagers were more inclined to dance at home or at private parties, and the Golden Age of the jukebox was over. Nowadays, these machines have been remotivated as found objects, and hence artworks, and are highly prized by collectors. What was junk to an earlier generation is art to the next, having undergone the transformation into a found object.

Selected Reading:

William Bunch. Jukebox America: Down Back Streets and Blue Highways in Search of the Country's Greatest Jukebox. St. Martin's, 1994.

Katrina Hazzard-Gordon.
Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Temple University Press, 1992.

Frank. W. Hoffman,
The Cash Box Singles Charts, 1950-1981. Scarecrow, 1983.

Vincent Lynch.
Jukebox: The Golden Age. Lancaster-Miller, 1981.

David W. Stowe,
Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America. Harvard University Press, 1994.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pedal Steel

Although typically defined as a type of guitar, the pedal steel guitar is actually an unusual instance of a stringed instrument becoming a keyboard instrument. The pedal steel is an electric guitar placed on a narrow table with legs, usually plucked with fingerpicks, with foot pedals and knee levers changing the pitch of the strings that are played with a steel bar. In America, the origin of the pedal steel guitar—perhaps the most recognizable instrument in country music—dates back to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, when Americans were introduced to the Hawaiian steel guitar and the way it was played, flat on the lap and fretted with a piece of metal or bone or the back of a comb. Within a few years, steel guitar music became a national craze, augmented by the phonograph record. By the late 1930s, the electric steel guitar, now with pedals and manufactured by Rickenbacher, Fender, and others, had become strongly associated with American country music, even though its origin was Hawaiian. Thus country music is, in fact, an eclectic form of world music. In 1953, Bud Isaacs and Webb Pierce recorded “Slowly,” revolutionizing the use of the pedal steel guitar in both country and popular music in America.

In country music, the pedal steel is the musical equivalent of drunken self-pity, a form of self-indulgence in which one entertains the belief that one’s life is sadder and more difficult than everyone else’s—as the old adage says, suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher. Hence the pedal steel gives expression to inner emotional turmoil. The 1950s recordings of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, collected on the highly prized CD Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (Razor & Tie), influenced countless pedal steel guitarists who followed, and prepared the way for the pedal steel to be employed in rock music—by The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers (check out “Christine’s Tune” here), and many other bands.

Some Exemplary Recordings Featuring the Pedal Steel:

B. J. Cole, “Clair de Lune,” Transparent Music (Hannibal)

Jimmy Day with Ray Price, “Crazy Arms,” on Hillbilly Fever! Vol. 3, Legends of Nashville (Rhino)

Pete Drake, “Lay Lady Lay,” on Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline (Columbia)

Josh Dubin, “First Song for Kate,” on Bobby Previte, Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)

Buddy Emmons, “Silver Bell” Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection (Razor & Tie)

John Hughey, “Last Date (Lost Her Love on Our Last Date),” on Conway Twitty, 20 Greatest Hits (MCA)

Bud Isaacs, “Slowly,” on Webb Pierce, King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Decca Masters, 1952-1959 (MCA/CMA)

Sneaky Pete Kleinow, “Christine’s Tune,” on Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (Edsel)

Ralph Mooney, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” on
James Burton and Ralph Mooney, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’ (See-For-Miles)

Speedy West, “Stratosphere Boogie,” on Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (Razor & Tie)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Jimmy Carl Black, 1938-2008

I only today learned that Jimmy Carl Black (pictured at the far left on the back cover of the Mothers’ album Freak Out!) the former drummer and sometime singer for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, died last Saturday, November 1, after a battle with cancer. He was 70 years old. Like most anyone who’s seriously listened to the Mothers’ music, I remember Black primarily because of his amusing soundbite on the Mothers of Invention album We’re Only In It For the Money (1968), “Hi Boys and Girls, I’m Jimmy Carl Black, and I’m the Indian of the group.” (Black had Cheyenne Indian ancestry through both parents.) Black would later appear as one of the more interesting characters in Zappa’s largely uninteresting art-house movie 200 Motels (1971), singing “Lonesome Cowboy Burt.” After Frank Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention in 1969, Black formed a band named Geronimo Black that released an eponymously titled LP on MCA/Universal in 1972. I purchased a vinyl copy that year and have returned to it many times over the years, and while critically highly regarded, apparently the album did poorly in terms of sales. According to his obituary in the L. A. Times, after the failure of the Geronimo Black album, Black quit playing music, at one time “earning a living working in a doughnut shop” and later “as a house painter and decorator.” Some years later, in 1980, he joined ex-Mothers Bunk Gardner and Don Preston in The Grandmothers, a band that split and reunited many times over the next twenty years. For reasons I do not know, Black moved to Italy in 1992, and then to Germany in 1995. He appeared as a singer with The Muffin Men, a Liverpool band that specialized in the music of Zappa and Captain Beefheart. He is survived by his wife, Monika, whom he married in 1995 following the death of his second wife; three sons and three daughters.

Jimmy Carl Black was a member of the Mothers of Invention in their most musically adventurous and hence interesting period, which is why I’m aware of him at all, and why I bought some of his later records. Later incarnations of the Mothers never captured my imagination the way the band did during the period from Freak Out! (1966) through Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970). As a figure who loomed large in my early musical explorations while I was a teenager, I will always fondly remember Jimmy Carl Black. Additional information can be found on his website.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Election Day: Whichever candidate you support, today America is on the verge of history, as this article from the L. A. Times online points out. I won't blog much today, as most eyes will be on election results--here and elsewhere in the world. So enjoy this historic day, everybody!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Brush Arbor Style

I’d fully intended to post the following entry on the brush arbor style this weekend, in connection with the Western Christian holidays of “All Saints Day” (November 1) and “All Souls’ Day” (November 2), the religious holidays that follow Halloween. It is therefore a little late, but the spirit was willing. According to Michael Jarrett, brush arbor is “a variety of sacred country music, similar to bluegrass, characterized by the collision of string-band delicacy and Pentecostal zeal” (p. 205). The brush arbor style takes its name from the Southern practice of making crude shelters that could be used as places of worship. According to Brush Arbor Quarterly:

The Brush Arbor meetings got their name from the crude structures under which these meetings took place. Brush arbors were roughed-in shelters made of upright poles driven into the ground over which long poles were laid across the top and tied together in lattice fashion to serve as support for a primitive roof of brush or hay that served to protect the worshippers [sic] and seekers from the elements.

In many rural areas during those years, no formal church existed. Small congregations were often unable to afford a full-time pastor or shepherd for the believing flock in their little community.

According to Jerry Sullivan (pictured, with Tammy Sullivan), the brush arbor style “is more like families sitting down with a guitar, maybe a mandolin, and playing. They followed the Carter Family sound a little bit. It’s a mixture between the country sound and bluegrass” (qtd. in Jarrett, p. 205). Michael Jarrett relates an anecdote that when Marty Stuart sent Bob Dylan a copy of Jerry and Tammy Sullivan’s brush arbor-inspired album, At the Feet of God (pictured, 1995), “he enclosed a note that read, ‘I hope you enjoy this backwoods, Southern, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel record’” (pp. 205-06).

The fictitious group, The Soggy Bottom Boys, featured in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), are an homage (of sorts) to the Stanley Brothers. Some of the “roots music” featured on that film’s soundtrack is inspired by the brush arbor style.

A Selection Of Country Gospel:

E. C. and Orna Ball, E. C. Ball with Orna Ball (Rounder)
The Chestnut Grove Quartet, The Legendary Chestnut Grove Quartet (County)
Alison Krauss and the Cox Family, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (Rounder)
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Rock My Soul (Sugar Hill)
The Louvin Brothers, When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers (Razor & Tie)
Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, At the Feet of God (New Haven)
The Whitstein Brothers, Sweet Harmony (Rounder)
Stanley Brothers, The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers (Columbia/Legacy) [contains "Man of Constant Sorrow," covered by Bob Dylan on his first album]
Various, Something Got a Hold of Me: A Treasury of Sacred Music (RCA)
Various, Southern Journey Vol. 4: Brethren, We Meet Again (Rounder)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Book Writer?

David Barker, editor of Continuum’s “33 & 1/3” series of books on classic rock albums, announced yesterday on his blog that Continuum is now accepting proposals for future 33 & 1/3 books, to be published in 2010 and 2011. A significant change in this year’s submissions policy is that the “one book per band/artist” rule no longer exists. Therefore, the review board will consider proposals for books about any album that hasn’t already been covered in the series, or isn’t already under contract.

For those interested, one can find a list of titles already published in the series here, which also lists those titles “Coming 2008” and “Titles Announced for 2008 and 2009.” Apparently the “Unknown Status” list consists of proposed titles that are no longer under contract (with the exception of the books about Kate Bush, Lucinda Williams, and the Clash). The deadline for submission of proposals this go-round is midnight, December 31st, 2008.

Last year I proposed a book on Wall of Voodoo’s classic album Call of the West (1982) for which I had the full support of Stan Ridgway. Not only did he provide me some great material for the proposal, but he also enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, saying he would be happy to sell the books at his concerts. Foolishly believing the proposal would be accepted, I began writing it, only to learn about halfway through the manuscript that my proposal had been rejected. That incomplete manuscript now resides in my file cabinet. The same thing happened to my friend Tim Lucas, who in fact completed his manuscript on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation (1968). His proposal was also rejected, but he’s announced on his blog that he intends to re-submit his proposal—which he may, in fact, already have done. I have been strongly considering submitting a proposal on The Zombies’ 1968 album Odessey and Oracle—an album specifically mentioned by David Barker as one he would like to have in the series—but there is another title I’m also considering, more outré and avant-garde, that I think should be in the series also. If I don’t do it, who will? (No, it’s not for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music—that’s been proposed already.)

I own roughly half the titles in the 33 & 1/3 series, primarily those on albums that strongly interest me. It is a splendid concept for a series, of course, and while I think the series appears to have at this point given up too quickly on classic albums, that may change now that the “one book per band/artist” rule is no longer in effect, opening up proposals for other Beatles albums, for instance, or different albums by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and others. I for one would sure like to see a book on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975), as well as a book on the Brian Jones era of The Rolling Stones—Aftermath, for instance (hint, hint). And no book on Elvis Presley in a series on rock albums? That's shameful. Someone should write up a proposal on From Elvis in Memphis (1969), one of the great albums of all time.

Good luck to everyone submitting this time! Wish me luck as well.

Van The Man

Last month I posted a blog on Van Morrison’s upcoming shows at the Hollywood Bowl—happening at the end of this week, Friday and Saturday, November 7 and 8—during which he will perform live his masterpiece Astral Weeks (1968). In conjunction with his upcoming performances, the L. A. Times posted both an article and a rare interview with Van the Man that anyone even remotely interested in his music must read: he discusses his life, his career, his music, poetry, and art all with remarkable candor. I am very disappointed that I cannot attend his concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, although information in the Times article as well as his website indicates that the concerts will be recorded and released on both vinyl and CD by the end of the year. When the actual dates are announced I will post them here.