Friday, March 7, 2008

Saturday, January 23, 1960: Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-blowin' in the Wind

Dead ants are my friends, a-blowin’ in the wind
Dead ants are a-blowin’ in the wind

According to (one of many internet sources where one can find the definition), a mondegreen is "the mishearing (usually unintentional) of a phrase as a homophone or near-homophone in such a way that it acquires a new meaning." A banal example of a mondegreen can be found on an old Korean laser disc I own of Sam Raimi’s film Army of Darkness, in which the date, “1300 A.D.” has been (mis)translated in the subtitle as “1380,” an understandable mistake by a non-native speaker of English. Most of us are familiar with figures such as the Necker Cube and the “duck-rabbit” (pictured), ambiguous figures used to illustrate the idea that the perception of visual phenomena is not only a matter of the eye recognizing the stimulus, but also the mind. The picture of the duck-rabbit is an example of an ambiguous image, or graphic amphiboly. At least one theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit for cognitive psychologists is that it reveals the role of expectations and experiential knowledge in the act of perception: what one sees is more often more accurately understood as what one thinks one sees. A different theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit is the role of unconscious desires in the act of perception, as illustrated by the use of Rorschach (“inkblot”) Test.

When it comes to mondegreens (an aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone), some wonderful ones have been created by the mishearing of popular song lyrics. Hence my motive for writing this blog: I’d originally intended to write about Johnny Horton, an interesting popular singer not much remembered anymore, but as a consequence of my wife Becky and I reminiscing about her mishearing the lyrics to Horton’s “Jim Bridger” as a little girl, I changed my focus to the mondegreen. Here’s what Horton sings:

He spoke with General Custer
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custer didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custer died.

Here’s what Becky, at about age six or seven, heard:

He spoke with General Custard
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custard didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custard died.

Although not as amusing, my Johnny Horton mondegreen occurred by mishearing a lyric in "North to Alaska," a song I played over and over and over as a small boy. What I heard was, "They’re goin’ North, to the Russian zone," rather than "They're goin' North, the rush is on." Who knows why I heard it this way? Perhaps because in kindergarten we’d been studying about Alaska, which had recently achieved statehood, and which, geographically speaking, we’d learned was very near Russia. I simply don't remember, but I suspect this actually might be the reason, thus illustrating the role of subjective expectations in perceptual (and aural) cognition.

Among the more famous mondegreens that have occurred through mishearing the rock music lyric is, of course, the one from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” in which, “’scuse me, while I kiss the sky” was misheard by some as, “’scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” (Does this mishearing reveal what was perceived by some as a sexual ambiguity in Jimi Hendrix, or, alternatively, homophobia--or repressed homoerotic desire--in the listener?) Apparently, so I’m told, having heard of this mondegreen and found it amusing, Hendrix began singing the lyric the "kiss this guy" way during live performances.

But I believe my favorite mondegreen is derived from The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” because it is so wonderfully surreal:

The Beach Boys sang:
Well since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head

Well since she put me down there’ve been owls pukin’ in my bed

Speaking of The Beach Boys, here’s a wonderful one:

Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
--Dobie Gray, Drift Away

Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul

Are American listeners inclined to misread (mishear) the lyrics of rock and roll songs more so than the lyrical content of other popular music for paranoid reasons? Dave Marsh observes in Louie Louie (Hyperion Books, 1993):

Rock lovers and rock haters both assume that great rock ’n’ roll songs are, or ought to be, dreamed up on the spot. Rock fans think this proves the music’s tremendous spontaneity and dedication to amateurism. . . . Rock bashers promulgate rock-on-the-spot because it reinforces their sense of it as throwaway garbage made solely to generate big bucks and/or gonadal excitement, with an underlying purpose either cynical or Satanic. (10)

The charge of Satanic influence was a later development in the history of rock, but ever since Elvis the lyrical contents of rock songs have been under suspicion. Dave Marsh uses “Louie Louie” as an illustration of the way the inherent ambiguity of rock lyrics raises paranoid suspicions, but it’s nonetheless true that the lyrical content—predictably—of rock and roll lyrics has often been filled with sexual innuendo, perhaps beginning with Elvis’s popularization of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” For instance,

I'm like the one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store

has to be one of lewdest lyrics in rock history; I do not know whether Elvis recognized the innuendo, but he nonetheless performed it, and got away with it, on American national TV in 1956.

Of course, lyricists have deliberately exploited various forms of linguistic ambiguity, which only encourages the listener in practice to "hear" all sorts of fantastic possibilities. For instance:

Amphiboly (grammatical ambiguity):
I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola
--The Kinks, Lola

Fallacy of Accent:
She’s my girl Bill
My, my girl Bill
--Jim Stafford, My Girl Bill

Paraphrasis (Song titles):
Turning Japanese; Pictures of Lilly (guys)
I Touch Myself; She Bop (“I’m picking up good vibration”) (girls)

One can’t avoid deliberate subterfuge of lyrics, either, meaning the deliberate (intentional as opposed to unintentional) misreading of lyrics, as my friends and I did to the lyrics of the following song, in order to transform into a song about fetishization (which doesn’t preclude that some, in fact, did mishear the song as we consciously transformed it).

The Rain, the Park & Other Things

I saw her sitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn't seem to care
She sat there and smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy


I saw her shitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn’t seem to care
She shat there as she smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy

But others were transformed by someone having made a simple Freudian slip (thus activating an unconscious but absolutely appropriate repressed meaning):

Don't Pull Your Love Out

Don’t pull your love out on me baby,
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years


Don’t pull your love out of me baby
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years

No wonder, then, that Eric Burdon pleaded--in vain:

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

But while one indeed may be a soul whose intentions are good, one can still, alas, be misunderstood:

Oh Lord, Peace, at least my Bemis understood.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cookeville: Follow-up

Yesterday, the day after I posted my blog entry on Sam Cooke, I received a lengthy comment from Cooke’s nephew, Erik Greene, correcting a factual error I’d made and also adding some additional information about Cooke’s career. (Comments are posted as a link to the blog entry, but I also receive a copy of the responder’s post via email. For those who haven’t read his response, click on the “Comments” link at the end of the “January 22, 1960: Cookeville” entry below.) After receiving his response, I wrote to Mr. Greene thanking him for taking the time to post a detailed comment, and also asked him if he minded me posting an update to clarify a couple statements I’d made in the blog. He wrote back a cordial response saying yes, by all means, that he would appreciate having a dialog in an open forum. I should point out that Erik Greene is the author of Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective (for further information, visit his website, As I told Mr. Greene, I’d every intention of referring to his biography just as I had to Peter Guralnick’s, but I just simply forgot to do so. I’ll claim as an excuse fatigue and the lateness of the hour for the oversight. (I should point out that the time stamp at the end of each entry is the time the blog entry was first saved in the system, not the actual time—normally much later—I formally post it.)

Mr. Greene pointed out that the date of January 22 as the date of Sam Cooke’s signing with RCA is incorrect; the date of the signing was actually January 6. I took the January 22 date from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, which I’d assumed—wrongly, it turns out—would be factually correct. January 22 was actually Sam Cooke’s birthday (he would have turned 29 years old in January 1960). Mr. Greene also indicated to me that there are several other factual errors on the RRHOF Sam Cooke page, and hence he admitted to me that his frustration was really directed at this vast conglomerate (a corporate venture to be sure) that disseminates such shoddy information. Nonetheless, I should have followed my usual practice of corroborating factual information with the various print sources I have, which I failed to do in this case, an oversight for which I apologize, and something I will not fail to do again.

The actual date, of course, is a matter of trivial significance; more significant is the historical importance of his signing with RCA in the first place. I don’t believe Mr. Greene disagreed with my overall observation about how poorly Sam Cooke is represented on CD. In my original post I’d focused exclusively on Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, in order to make two general points: 1) although RCA is hardly a “minor” label, the album remains unavailable on CD, and 2) close scrutiny of the album reveals that RCA had in mind transforming Sam Cooke into either Johnny Mathis or Harry Belafonte, both successful at the time as “cross-over” artists. And if I’m wrong about this assertion regarding specifics (Mathis or Belafonte), the general point is the same. Although it is true I raised some hesitations about certain of his songs later in the blog, my point in bringing up Cooke’s Tour was not to criticize either the artist or the album but to illustrate the complexities of the music industry at the time, not only how RCA was trying to “market” Cooke to a white audience through a “concept” album (a similar concept, incidentally, that was used by Ray Charles later in the year with The Genius Hits the Road) but his own strained relationship with a black audience which felt he had betrayed his calling as a gifted gospel singer. I suspect that Mr. Greene took offense at my characterization of certain of Cooke’s arrangements as being “saccharine” (which, in yet another embarrassment, I misspelled in the original blog entry) an admittedly pejorative term that suggests that Cooke’s arrangements are somehow atypical of, rather than consistent with, the arranging practices of the time. What I should have said, and what is more accurately said about some of his music, is something Simon Frith observed about twenty years ago in his essay, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music” (included in R. Leppert and S. McClary, Eds., Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 133-149), that the most successful popular music has always been sentimental. While Frith was not referring to Sam Cooke in the context of this remark, his observation applies as much to the music of Sam Cooke (e.g., “Wonderful World”) as it does to the Beatles (e.g., “Yesterday”) and many hundreds of other popular music artists. To characterize certain of his songs this way is, I hope, not in any way dismissive of it, which is to say I’m now trying to make an argument of definition rather than one of quality.

Still, I can’t rid myself of the impression that the poorly documented career of Sam Cooke on CD makes his case remarkable, in the sense that it should be remarked upon. To be completely honest about the matter, I’m not at all a fan of either compilation albums or “greatest hits” albums. I’m fully aware that many people disagree with me, and that from an industry standpoint “greatest hits” albums generate significant revenues. (Case in point: in terms of sheer numbers, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is the biggest selling rock album of all-time.) In the case of Sam Cooke, compilations (whether those be titled greatest hits, best ofs, or any number of other innumerable retitlings) by far dominate his current catalog available on CD. I’ll illustrate the situation as follows, indicating whether the original RCA album is currently available (or ever available) on CD:

Cooke’s Tour (RCA, 1960) No
Hits of the 50s (RCA, 1960) No
Swing Low (RCA, 1961) No
My Kind of Blues (RCA, 1961) No
Twistin’ the Night Away (RCA, 1962) No
Mr. Soul (RCA, 1963) No
Shake (RCA, 1965) No

Again, for an artist of his stature, this is astonishing. I did a quick search on eBay for these records, and if in fact the album is available for sale at all, one will pay, as the saying goes, “a pretty penny” for it. As I wrote to Erik Greene: “. . . there are a great many poor or even terrible albums that have been released on CD in gloriously remastered form in order to fully document the career of a major recording artist. Some bad films by some famous film directors are available on DVD in order to properly document the director's career; even failures are revealing, even as much as grand successes. I think the same rule ought to apply to popular recording artists. Even some early 70s budget compilations of rather insignificant material by Elvis exist on CD. . . Cooke's Tour . . . ought to be available, if for no other reason than to document the way RCA was trying to "market"--or "mis-market" perhaps--Sam Cooke.

Mr. Greene responded (referring to Cooke’s Tour in particular):

While it's true Sam was out of his element on most of the album, I have to honor that it was an experiment--and a miscalculation by both Sam and RCA--of what the listening public wanted to hear. . . . With Sam’s limited number of releases, you are correct in assuming "Cooke's Tour" deserves to be digitally transferred to CD, for its historical reference if not its artistic value.

I heartily agree with him: these albums are of great historic value and should be released. It is worth noting that albums of the most arcane sort have been issued on CD through labels such as Collector’s Choice Music, but RCA hasn’t yet been compelled to release on CD seven of the original albums Cooke recorded for the label (and an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) thus making them available to a new generation of listeners.

I can’t help but think--cynically, perhaps, I don’t know--that the manner of Sam Cooke’s death has harmed his subsequent historical reception, an unhappy situation that Erik Greene, in Our Uncle Sam, attempts to redress, by looking closely at the details of his uncle's shooting. I hadn’t considered the implications of this when I wrote my initial post, but it surely has to be taken into consideration as one of the factors that have affected his popular, if not critical, reputation. For Sam Cooke did not die romantically, the Romantic myth being essential to the proper image of the rock and roller as artist. He did not die by suicide, like Kurt Cobain, or a martyr, like John Lennon, or by a drug overdose (and hence an emblem of the self-destructive artist) like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison; instead, he died rather like Elvis Presley, that is, in a wholly unflattering light. The difference in their subsequent historical reception is that RCA has released virtually everything save the most obscure outtakes and alternate takes by Elvis; in contrast, Sam Cooke’s recordings, if released at all, have been issued in a slipshod, ad hoc basis. Perhaps the recent biographies by Greene and Guralnick will help redress this oversight.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Friday, January 22, 1960: Cookeville

According to information that can be found on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Sam Cooke signed with RCA Victor Records on Friday, January 22, 1960. By this time, of course, he’d had a couple of highly successful singles. “You Send Me,” and “I’ll Come Running Back to You” were both #1 on the domestic R&B Charts in the late 1950s, while “Only Sixteen” had reached #23 in the UK. Yet I have to admit that Sam Cooke has always been something of a mystery to me, primarily because it seems that outside of the major singles and the singles made when he was a member of the Soul Stirrers (subsequently released for members of my generation on compilation albums after his death, otherwise we would have never had the opportunity to hear them), his recording career has been poorly documented, or at least in terms of its variety of musical forms, misrepresented, and outside of the major singles, I don’t fully understand the extent of his contribution to rock and roll, or why he's inscribed as a key figure within its history. I'm not sure my ignorance of this matter is entirely my fault, for reasons I'll explain.

For instance, Cooke's debut album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour (LPM/LSP-2221) has—if my research is accurate—never been released on CD. It seems extraordinary to me that at this late date an artist of his stature would have an album or albums yet unreleased on compact disc, but it is so—unless the album is, in everyone’s assessment (everyone that matters), not especially significant. I observed a few blog entries ago that the music industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least insofar as "rock" and "pop" was concerned, was clearly focused on singles rather than albums, and therefore it seems ironic that Cooke’s early singles for RCA did not do very well, let alone his first album: none of Cooke’s singles released immediately after joining RCA were successful. His first hit single (#12) in 1960, “Wonderful World,” ironically, was released by Keen—not RCA—and had been recorded in March, 1959 while Cooke was still recording for his earlier label. “Chain Gang,” one of the two songs attempted during Cooke’s first recording session at RCA on January 25th, had been abandoned, but returned to a couple of months later, and eventually released to hit #2 in early October, 1960, to become his second million-selling single.

But to return to Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, which doesn’t seem to get much mention so far as Sam Cooke’s recording career is concerned, and indeed, has never been digitally remastered--especially strange, it seems to me, given its putative significance. Moreover, only three tracks from this album have been, to my knowledge, subsequently released on the many compilation albums RCA released after Cooke’s death. The track listing for Cooke’s Tour (named as such because the songs on the album are set in locations “around the world”) is as follows, followed by the popular singer—by no means the only popular singer to have recorded the song or had success with it—who had a major hit with the song. It hardly seems like a “rock and roll” album to me, or even a “soul” album for that matter:

1. Far Away Places--Bing Crosby
2. Under Paris Skies
3. South Of The Border--Frank Sinatra
4. Bali Ha'i--Frank Sinatra (originally from South Pacific)
5. The Coffee Song--Frank Sinatra
6. Arrivederci, Roma--Perry Como
7. London By Night--Frank Sinatra
8. Jamaica Farewell--Harry Belafonte
9. Galway Bay--Bing Crosby
10. Sweet Leilani--Bing Crosby (Waikiki Wedding, Paramount, 1937)
11. The Japanese Farewell Song (aka "Sayonara")
12. The House I Live In--Frank Sinatra

As I indicated earlier, to my knowledge only three tracks from this album were subsequently released on compilation albums, and these three can only be found on The One and Only Sam Cooke (RCA Camden, RCA’s budget label, 1967): “Far Away Places,” “Bali Ha’i,” and “Jamaica Farewell.” Apologists have attempted to explain away Cooke’s Tour: yes, it’s a pop album, yes, the song selection is rather banal (with, perhaps, the exception of “The House I Live In”), and yes, the honeyed strings are laid on a bit too thick. But it is worth pointing out that the songs were arranged and conducted by Glenn Osser, at the time Johnny Mathis’ musical director, which gives us an enticing clue as to what RCA had in mind for Sam Cooke. No wonder Peter Guralnick, in his biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown, 2005), has a difficult time explaining Cooke’s often saccarhine taste in the arrangements of his songs.

And yet, during his discussion of Cooke, Donald Clarke, in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), suggests how complicated it was at the time for a gospel singer to become a popular music singer. Clarke writes: “Religious blacks were scandalized when one of their stars changed to secular music. Popular as Sam Cooke had been with the Soul Stirrers, he was booed when he turned up at a gospel meeting after having pop hits” (469). It seems to me what RCA wanted to do—based on the content of his first album—was to transform Sam Cooke into a “pop singer” because white audiences at the time were largely unfamiliar (for rather obvious reasons) with black gospel.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time hearing either “soul” or “rock and roll” in Cooke’s first hit for RCA, “Chain Gang.” I hear something very close to Harry Belafonte. Peter Guralnick would seem to agree, admitting that while “Chain Gang” ought to have been--given the “cruel realities of the situation” the song depicts--cast in a blues form. Oddly, Cooke instead “sets the song to a jaunty Caribbean beat,” which makes the song sound pretty “happy-sounding” (320).

Such is the curious musical legacy of Sam Cooke, whose career, at least for me, has never been suitably explained (unless it's simply the influence of his vocal style). Indisputably he was a great vocalist (for me, "Cupid" has one of most memorable and beautiful melodies in all pop music), but his contributions (in the sense of influence) to rock and roll have, to me, never been convincingly explained--unless, as I mentioned above, it rests entirely on the vocal style which has been--copied?--by so many.