Friday, November 21, 2008


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