Saturday, September 9, 2023

Sweet Songs

“Who can take tomorrow / Dip it in a dream / Separate the sorrow / And collect up all the cream?”, asks Bill, the candy store proprietor (played by Aubrey Woods) in “The Candy Man,” the famous song from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Like the children who fill his store as he sings, we know the answer: “The candy man can cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.” Here, the candy man is represented as a benign figure from an imaginary land of plenitude, where our wishes for endless bounty come true, and the idea of scarcity is unknown, a place of luxury and ease and comfort, without sorrow. He comes from an idyllic place which might well be nestled in “The Big Rock Candy Mountains”: 

There’s a land that’s fair and bright,

Where the handouts grow on bushes

And you sleep out every night

Where the boxcars all are empty

And the sun shines every day

On the birds and the bees

And the cigarette trees

The lemonade springs

Where the bluebird sings

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains


But there’s another kind of candy man, the one who we can hear in the materialistic world of Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man”: “C’mon baby, let me take you by the hand / C’mon sugar, let me take you by the hand,” ‘cause he wants to be her candy man—an appeal to her avarice. “I met him at the candy store,” sing the Shangri-Las in their quaint 1964 hit, “Leader of the Pack,” the band named after an imaginary paradise, not unlike the one to be found in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. The candy store is a site of innocence, just as it is in Johnny Cash’s fable, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (1958), a song about a beauty queen who “loved the boy next door who worked at the candy store.” Not so in “Leader of the Pack”: the father does not approve of his daughter hanging out with a juvenile delinquent, the leader of a pack of motorcycle-riding hoodlums. And why wouldn’t the father be suspicious, for isn’t there a hint of danger in a figure who hangs out in a candy store, tempting innocent young women with sweets?

The candy man is a culturally ambivalent figure. The candy man makes his candies with love and makes the world taste good, but isn’t Willy Wonka also a vaguely sinister figure, luring children to his factory with a Golden Ticket that promises the lucky winner with a lifetime supply of chocolate? It is not clear that the odd and mercurial Wonka actually likes children, even though, paradoxically, he makes “scrumdidilyumptious” candy bars. The mystery that surrounds Willy Wonka fits a larger tradition of works such as Edward Fenton’s Penny Candy (illustrated by Edward Gorey, 1970), with its uncomfortably strange candy shop owner.

The candy man can remove the sorrow from tomorrow, and make his candy with love, but he also seeks to control us through our gastër, our ravenous stomach, our gluttony. The candy man’s shadow self is the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” who lures the unsuspecting children by appealing to their infantile, insatiable appetites for candy and sweets. Here is a passage from Robert Coover’s revision of “Hansel and Gretel” titled “The Gingerbread House” (Pricksongs & Descants, 1969), a tour de force of the image of gluttony. The “black rags flapping” is, of course, a metonymy for the witch:

The children approach the gingerbread house through a garden of candied fruits and all-day suckers, hopping along on flagstones of variegated wafers. They sample the gingerbread weatherboarding with its caramel coating, lick at the meringue on the windowsills, kiss each other's sweetened lips. The boy climbs up on the chocolate roof to break off a peppermint-stick chimney, comes sliding down into a rain barrel full of vanilla pudding. The girl, reaching out to catch him in his fall, slips on a sugarplum and tumbles into a sticky rock garden of candied chestnuts. Laughing gaily, they lick each other clean. And how grand is the red-and-white chimney the boy holds up for her! how bright! how sweet! But the door: here they pause and catch their breath. It is heart-shaped and bloodstone-red, its burnished surface gleaming in the sunlight. Oh, what a thing is that door! Shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, and pulsing softly, radiantly. Yes, marvelous! delicious! insuperable! but beyond: what is that sound of black rags flapping?

The difference between plenitude and gluttony, need as opposed to excess, is a very fine line.


Here is a big box of sweet songs:


Harry McClintock – The Big Rock Candy Mountains (1928) (Frank Luther recorded a version at about the same time under the title, “That Big Rock Candy Mountain,” released on the Banner label)

Haywire Mac – The Big Rock Candy Mountains (1939) (as “Haywire Mac,” Harry McClintock apparently re-recorded “The Big Rock Candy Mountains” for Decca in 1939; the song went to #1 on the “Hillbilly” charts and helped to popularize the song; this is possibly the 1928 recording reissued on Decca)

Harry McClintock with Hal Borne & His Orchestra – The Big Rock Candy Mountains (1942) (McClintock re-recorded the song yet again, in 1942, with modified “swing era” lyrics, for RCM Productions’ “Soundies” series; “Soundies” were musical shorts capable of being viewed on “Panorams,” coin-operated, 16mm rear-projection machines—not “jukeboxes”)

Burl Ives – Big Rock Candy Mountain (1945) (Burl Ives’ version, recorded in March 1945 for Decca, with bowdlerized lyrics, widely popularized the song in the years after the war; the “mountains” of Harry McClintock’s version, where plentitude can be found, has become a singular “mountain,” which is how the song is popularly known now—even the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) removes the definite article and uses the singular “mountain” in the title, as if the song refers not to a paradisiacal land to be found hidden within the mountains, but a big, candy-colored free-standing mountain)

The Chordettes – Lollipop (1958) (also a hit by Ronald & Ruby the same year)

Dorsey Burnette – Big Rock Candy Mountain (1960) (an audible expression of what Lawrence Grossberg calls “sentimental inauthenticity”)

Roy Orbison – Candy Man (1961)

The Drifters – Sweets for My Sweet (1961) (one should listen to this song every day)

The Searchers – Sweets for My Sweet (1963) (please see my blog post on Timbre below, and then decide which version of “Sweets for My Sweet” you prefer; I prefer The Drifters’ version)

Elvis Presley - Cotton Candy Land (1963) (covered by Stevie Nicks & Chris Isaak, 2022)

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons – Candy Girl (1963)

Lesley Gore – Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows (1963) (an example of what is called “affective inflation”)

The Strangeloves – I Want Candy (1965) (covered by Bow Wow Wow 1982) (an example of appellatization, when a proper noun, Candy, is confused with a common noun, candy; think: Kleenex)

Roy Orbison – Sugar and Honey (1965)

The Strawberry Alarm Clock – Incense and Peppermints (1967)

The Archies – Sugar, Sugar (1969)

The Clique – Sugar on Sunday (1969)

The Ides of March – Vehicle (1970)

Aubrey Woods – The Candy Man (1971) (from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley)

The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar (1971) 

Sammy Davis, Jr. with the Mike Curb Congregation – The Candy Man (1972) 

Montrose – Rock Candy (1973)

Barry White – Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe (1974) (included here because it easily could be about candy, simultaneously invoking hunger, insatiable appetite, and oral gratification)

Ohio Players – Sweet Sticky Thing (1975)

Led Zeppelin – Candy Store Rock (1976)

The Cars – Candy-O (1979)

Mary Jane Girls – Candy Man (1983)

Sheena Easton – Sugar Walls (1984) (written by Prince—enough said)

Def Leppard – Pour Some Sugar on Me (1987) (the lyric, “I’m hot, sticky sweet,” suggests this song’s likely inspiration was Montrose’s hard-rocking “Rock Candy”)

Counting Crows – Hard Candy (2002)

50 Cent – Candy Shop (2005)

Rihanna – Sell Me Candy (2007)

Madonna – Candy Shop (2008) (impossible to miss the many similes for insatiable appetite in the lyrics for this one)

Monday, September 4, 2023

Assay Office

Assay office [from Wikipedia]: “Institutions set up to assay (test the purity of) precious metals . . . . often done to protect consumers from buying fake items.”

Music critics are motivated by opposing, mutually exclusive, desires. On the one hand, they strive to identify and distinguish the very best albums currently being marketed to mass audiences. On the other, they seek to shelter those same albums from mass consumption—from a homogenizing process that consists of assimilation or “popularization.” The critic’s sorting process is predicated on an epistemology that makes real/fake distinctions, its aim to vilify the counterfeit and praise the genuine item. Because of the critic’s status as an expert in the field, the critic’s discourse, merely descriptive or impressionistic, has the rhetorical force of science (applicable to critics of the arts in general, in fact).

Fortunately, the authenticating discourse of the critic can be subject to parody, undermining the critic’s epistemological certainty. Jazz critics have been especially subject to parody, and rightly so. Steve Allen’s spoken-word recordings, “Cinderella” and “Crazy Red Riding Hood,” issued on record in 1953 prior to the publication of his collection Bop Fables (1955), satirize hipster bop talk. Marshall Brickman’s hilarious “What, Another Legend?” (1973), mocks the jazzographer’s tendency to erect a jazz hall of fame. Perhaps the best parody of critics’ attempts to transform jazz into language is Donald Barthelme’s short story “The King of Jazz.” In Barthelme’s humorous story, a jazz fan responds to a question about how to describe the peerless sound of trombonist Hokie Mokie, the current king of jazz:

“You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witchgrass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like—“

Barthelme’s metaphorical feat, in fact, illustrates “the normal practice of music criticism,” translating “a work (or its performance) . . . into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective" (Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, p. 179).