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)