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)