Monday, November 23, 2009

Country Rock

Yesterday’s blog post on folk rock prompted me to give some serious thought to country rock, a rock form to which folk rock is a distant cousin. In contrast to folk rock, which during the short time of its existence produced some classic songs, country rock is yet another instance of a hyphenated rock form that has been only marginally successful, artistically speaking. I’m not using country rock as a synonym for rockabilly, hillbilly song forms sung with blues-gospel feeling (e.g., Elvis’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”). Indeed, as the Sun recordings of Elvis suggest, rockabilly characterized the lives of working-class Southerners (pejoratively referred to as “white trash”) the way the blues characterized the lives of black Americans throughout the Delta. Country rock is neither rockabilly nor the blues, although it borrowed certain elements of rockabilly, certainly. Arising in the late 1960s, the earliest performers of country rock--the Byrds during the Sweetheart of the Rodeo period (1968), the Flying Burrito Brothers during Gram Parsons’s tenure (The Gilded Palace of Sin, 1969)--all had long hair, signaling they had at the very least borrowed the youthful insolence of rockabilly (that is, the threatening aspects of the Fifties Elvis). In short, country rock was country music played with loud electric guitars by musicians with long hair. Gram Parsons, the figure most associated with country rock, actually hated the designation country rock and referred to it as “plastic dry fuck,” meaning that as far as he was concerned, he played authentic country music. In this sense, country rock was to the arch-conservative country music establishment what folk rock was to the folk establishment: it largely considered electric instruments as “inauthentic,” especially so when played by a bunch of hippies. Of the form’s practitioners, the later Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers are arguably the best, although groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones also recorded songs that might be considered country rock. Of the Beatles, Ringo Starr had the best feel for country, as exemplified by his singular solo album issued in 1970, Beaucoups of Blues, which I highly recommend.

Required Listening:
The International Submarine Band, Safe At Home (1968; recorded 1967)
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Burrito Deluxe (1970)
Ringo Starr, Beaucoups of Blues (1970)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Folk Rock

The designation “folk rock” rather obviously referred to rock derived from folk music sources. Bob Dylan’s controversial “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival on 25 July 1965 seems now to be a reaction against the arch-conservatism of the folk movement, for which electric instruments were considered “inauthentic.” The first major folk-rock hit, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was released in April 1965, quickly following the release of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home the previous month, on which the song had first appeared. Early on, folk rock managed to avoid charges of being meretricious by virtue of its lyrical content, which reflected the left-liberal bohemianism of the folk movement it largely supplanted. (The music of the folk revival prospered in the coffee houses and intimate clubs near college campuses and in the bigger cities.) The Byrds’ follow-up to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” released later in 1965, with lyrics derived from Ecclesiastes and a melody by Pete Seeger, is a good example of folk rock, as musically it sounded similar to the Beatles, although lyrically speaking it was reasonably sophisticated--and the inspirational source of the lyrics gave it a certain prestige. It may be that folk rock sought to bridge the college campus and the general, popular culture, then in the throngs of Beatlemania. “Topical” songs, such as Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (also 1965), betray the demand for “relevance” that sought to appeal to the campus and the coffee house. (As a “topical” song, McGuire’s hit has aged badly, unlike the music of the Byrds.) Why did the popularity of folk rock last only for a short time? Perhaps the reason lay in the influence of Modernist aesthetics, which demanded the singular perception of a discrete, that is solo, artist. Hence folk rock gave way to the “singer/songwriter” movement, revealed in the subsequent careers of certain members of folk rock bands such as The Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield: the former launched the career of John Sebastian, the latter Neil Young.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eat To The Beat

With Thanksgiving approaching, I inevitably thought of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song, “Alice’s Restaurant” (“it all started two Thanksgivings ago”), which then prompted me to think about food. As a (secular) national holiday, Thanksgiving (originally associated with our Puritan roots), ironically, has come to be associated with excessive appetite, the propensity to over-consume. I say this because the day after Thanksgiving is now referred to as “Black Friday,” a celebration of the consumer mentality, the biggest shopping day of the year. Oral excess is to be matched by excessive spending: in one massive mashup of excessive appetite, one is to over-eat and then to over-spend. Material acquisition, health, and decadence all merge into one colossal celebration of figurative orality.

In metaphorical terms, “appetite” is to sexual fulfillment what “thirst” is to spiritual fulfillment; both terms are used as figurations of human longing and desire: “sexual appetite,” and “spiritual thirst.” Both terms collide in the figure of dead Elvis, celebrated on the one hand as a nice boy with deep religious convictions, and on the other as someone with an insatiable appetite for snacks and so-called “junk” food. His life story is contained in images, from his well-known baby photo to the picture of Elvis in his coffin, as published in National Enquirer. So many rock ‘n’ roll songs have celebrated appetite, I thought I’d list a few to coincide with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Appetizers:
The B-52’s - “Rock Lobster”
The Beatles - “Savoy Truffle”
James Brown (as Nat Kendrick and the Swans) - “(Do The) Mashed Potatoes”
Jimmy Buffett - “Cheeseburger in Paradise”
Steve Goodman - “Chicken Cordon Blues”
Hot Butter - “Popcorn”
Jay & The Techniques - “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”
The Newbeats - “Bread and Butter”
Harry Nilsson - “Coconut”
Paul Revere & The Raiders- “Hungry”
O. C. Smith - “Little Green Apples”
Tin Tin - “Toast and Marmalade for Tea”
Warrant - “Cherry Pie”

Sunday, November 15, 2009


No one remembers happy lovers. “Happily ever after” simply means stirring the oatmeal and doing the laundry, and that sort of scenario is uninteresting. Romeo and Juliet, Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa, Antony and Cleopatra, Lancelot and Guinevere, all are famous lovers whose stories end tragically. James Cameron’s Titanic is the biggest grossing film of all time—and it’s not because it’s just another disaster film. Without the tragic love story, and the obstacle of the class barrier that in large part creates it, you have another Poseidon Adventure. As Lysander observes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Ay me! For aught that I could ever read,/Could ever hear by tale or history,/The course of true love never did run smooth.” The greatest obstacle to love is death, but one of the most prevalent obstacles is that of class—even in America, where we’re not supposed to care about such things.

Songs About The Class Barrier:
Phil Collins – Like China
Billy Joel – Only the Good Die Young
Dickey Lee – Patches
Gene Pitney – Princess In Rags
Johnny Rivers – The Poor Side of Town
Sonny & Cher – Baby Don’t Go
George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Conway Twitty – Tight Fightin’ Jeans
The 4 Seasons – Rag Doll
The 4 Seasons – Dawn (Go Away)
Charlie Walker – Pick Me Up On Your Way Down
Hank Williams, Jr. – This Ain’t Dallas
Mark Wills – Jacob’s Ladder
Faron Young – Country Girl

Required Reading:
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Long before “rhythm and blues” records replaced the use of “race records,” there was gutbucket, the kind of R&B played in dives and cheap saloons, the sort of places where you could gamble, buy hard liquor, and, if you so desired, hire a prostitute (the sort of cheap saloons that characterized New Orleans’ Storyville district). My guess is that “gutbucket” is a reference to the can (or bucket) in which customers could put money to support the musicians that played in these places. According to Ricky Riccardi, a self-proclaimed “Louis Armstrong freak,” “Gut Bucket” is a term used among the fish markets in New Orleans. According to Riccardi, “the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket.” After one of the historic recording sessions in 1925, Louis Armstrong was asked what name to give to song he and his Hot Five had just recorded—he said call it “Gut Bucket Blues,” a name for “low down blues.” He might also have said, “low down dirty blues.”

A washtub bass, which uses a washtub as a resonator, once was referred to as a “gutbucket”; the washtub bass was used in African American jug (folk) bands. In the 1920s and 1930s, jazz bands that played traditional (“New Orleans”) jazz referred to themselves jug bands, as for instance, with Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band. Bands such as Tampa Red’s often performed songs with raunchy lyrics, such as “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll),” one of the songs which eventually inspired the use of the term “Rock ‘n’ roll” to describe a certain form of R&B.

Some Collections of Gutbucket:
Various Artists - Risqué Rhythm: Nasty 50s R&B
Various Artists - Copulatin' Blues
Various Artists - Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon: The Ultimate Rude Blues Collection
Various Artists - Bed Spring Poker: Meat In Motion, 1926-1951
Various Artists - Eat to the Beat: The Dirtiest of them Dirty Blues

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ode to Billy Joel

Swamp Rock is a term coined by producer Jerry Wexler in the late 1960s to describe the sound of records made by Creedence Clearwater Revival (Bayou Country, 1969) and Louisiana-born singer/songwriter Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie,” also 1969). Swamp rock is the musical equivalent of the literary genre known as “local color,” and while it isn’t generally considered an instance of so-called Swamp Rock, the popularity of this particular musical form was jump-started by Bobbie Gentry’s huge hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Number 1 single released in 1967. In fact, Gentry’s debut album, Ode to Billie Joe, knocked the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of charts in the late summer of 1967. (Incidentally, as an instance of local color, I think it’s arguable that Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 smash hit, “Harper Valley PTA” profited greatly by the success of “Ode to Billie Joe.”) Coincidentally released at about the same as the “The Golliwogs” were reinventing themselves as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the musically sparse, lyrically haunting “Ode to Billie Joe,” often considered an example of “Southern Gothic” and not Swamp Rock, sounded “down-home”—and therefore authentic. Hence Swamp Rock, characterized by a heavy, fluid bass and distorted reverb guitar, was perceived to have actually emerged from the Louisiana bayous (the inspiration for the term), as CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” (1969) suggests. Since the lyrical content of the music often spoke to backwoods, rural experience and relied heavily on colloquial expression and local idioms—Tony Joe White actually was from Louisiana and his thick Southern accent was immediately noticeable—it was therefore considered “authentic.” However, since Creedence Clearwater Revival was from the Bay Area of San Francisco and not from the Louisiana bayou country, Swamp Rock may be considered an instance of the way the perception of authenticity can legitimize a certain form of popular music, and hence raise its cultural cachet in the marketplace. Just as the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” (from Abbey Road) was initially believed to have been recorded by a local band by “Swamp pop” enthusiasts in the New Orleans area, so, too, could CCR’s John Fogerty sound convincingly Southern.

Required Listening:
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Born on the Bayou (1969)
John Fogerty – Blue Moon Swamp (Geffen, 2004)
Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Swamp Music (1974)
Jerry Reed – Amos Moses (1970)
Jim Stafford – Swamp Witch (1973)
Tail Gators – Swamp Rock (Wrestler Records, 1992)
The Ventures – Hawaii Five-O/Swamp Rock (One Way, 1996)
Tony Joe White – Polk Salad Annie (1969)