New mix: don’t put no headstone on my grave

I struggled with this mix for quite a while, and probably have two other mixes of rejected tracks even though the final version clocks in at 2 CDs’ length. The hard bit is always mood. Summer is easy mixin’ weather; winter, especially this winter, was hard.

And a lot of this mix struggled with the challenge of a world turned upside down. So there are a few more instrumental tracks, a few more down tracks. But it starts in a place of fragile hope, with Lou Reed’s incredibly timely song of transsexual identity which is equal measures crisis and birth of the new, and ends in a place of defiance. And maybe that’s what we have left to ourselves right now.

  1. Candy Says (Closet Mix)The Velvet Underground (Peel Slowly and See)
  2. SilverEcho & The Bunnymen (Songs To Learn & Sing)
  3. Boys Keep SwingingDavid Bowie (Lodger)
  4. Damaged GoodsGang Of Four (Entertainment!)
  5. DevotionMission of Burma (Signals, Calls and Marches (Remastered))
  6. World Cup DrummingMclusky (My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours)
  7. ElectioneeringRadiohead (OK Computer)
  8. The Great Curve (live)Talking Heads (Jaap Eden Hall, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, December 11, 1980)
  9. Wish FulfillmentSonic Youth (Dirty)
  10. As I Went Out One MorningBob Dylan (John Wesley Harding)
  11. Time, As a SymptomJoanna Newsom (Divers)
  12. Morning LakeWeather Report (Weather Report)
  13. Sense Of DoubtDavid Bowie (Heroes)
  14. What Will You Say (feat. Alim Qasimov)Jeff Buckley featuring Alim Qasimov (Live at L’Olympia)
  15. This RoomThe Notwist (Neon Golden)
  16. Politician ManBetty Davis (The Columbia Years 1968-1969)
  17. For What It’s WorthTalk Talk (The Very Best Of)
  18. Above ChiangmaiBrian Eno (Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror)
  19. Magpie to the MorningNeko Case (Middle Cyclone (Bonus Track Version))
  20. State TrooperBruce Springsteen (Nebraska)
  21. DaphniaYo La Tengo (I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass)
  22. The Sky Is BrokenMoby (Play)
  23. Here Come the Warm Jets (2004 – Remaster)Brian Eno (Here Come The Warm Jets)
  24. Give Me Cornbread When I’m HungryJohn Fahey (The Dance Of Death & Other Plantation Favorites)
  25. After AwhileSwan Silvertones (Love Lifted Me / My Rock)
  26. The Last Broken Heart (Prop 8)Christian Scott (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)
  27. Mystic BrewVijay Iyer Trio (Historicity)
  28. Why Was I Born?Kenny Burrell And John Coltrane (Kenny Burrell With John Coltrane)
  29. Meeting in the AisleRadiohead (Airbag/How Am I Driving?)
  30. The Last RayThis Mortal Coil (It’ll End in Tears)
  31. Cedars of LebanonU2 (No Line On the Horizon (Deluxe Edition))
  32. We FloatPJ Harvey (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea)
  33. No Headstone On My GraveEsther Phillips (Oxford American 2003 Southern Music CD No. 6)

Marantz SR6011: initial thoughts

Following up my post about the new AppleTV, I finally got my new Marantz receiver hooked up and working. First thoughts below.

First: not only did I get this receiver at a relative bargain, I ended up getting this year’s model. That’s right; I ordered a new-in-box Marantz SR6010 but the seller sent me a new-in-box SR6011. For a few hundred dollars off list. Score!

Second: this is the first “modern” AV receiver I’ve had, and so many of my notes are just awe that the thing works. You run one HDMI cable from the receiver to your TV, then plug all the HDMI cables from your other devices into the back of the receiver, and hey-presto, easy peasy. All you have to do is to switch the receiver to the new input source–the TV settings can remain unchanged.

Third, as compared to the Onkyo, which seemed to go from quiet to loud awfully quickly, the Marantz has miles of quiet built into it, which is nice for more nuanced classical or jazz listening. I seem to regularly be setting the volume to between 30 and 40, which is comfortable without being distracting from other rooms.

Fourth, I love the onscreen menus and the manual speaker calibration. In older receivers, I used to be driven mad by the hoops required to tell the amp I had no center channel so that it would redirect the dialog to the stereo speakers. On this model, you pull up the settings menu, choose Speakers, and tell it you have no center channel. Easy.

It’s weird, but useful, to see the Marantz show up in my AirPlay menu on my iPhone too.

The only thing I don’t like is that it’s just a little too deep for me to be able to close my audio cabinet.

Coming up with the TFC: the Busoni Piano Concerto

One of the comforting things in my life right now is that, no matter how much things change, music remains a constant. On Friday and Saturday I am lucky enough to be able to take my place with the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a rare performance of the Busoni Piano Concerto, whose “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to orchestration includes a men’s chorus part in the final movement.

The choral writing in the work is interesting, anticipating modern harmonies in several places, and our guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya has drawn some rich sonority out of the ensemble. I’ve enjoyed preparing the work, which has involved sitting “hashed” so that we can all hear all the other parts and blend our sound and pitches more effectively.

The men’s choral sound also makes me nostalgic for my friends in the Virginia Glee Club, whose exploits this week on tour are being chronicled on Frank Albinder’s tour blog. Wafna!

Sounds of anguish

Christopher C. King, Oxford American: Unearthly Laments. It’s easier than you might think to connect the dots between the earliest known complete musical composition—the Seikilos Epitaph—and “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” I’ve got a mix almost in the can that explores some of these connections.

But that isn’t why you should read King’s piece. His tale of discovery of a 78 of the Blind Willie Johnson record is: a little physical remnant of sorrow, left to rot in a sharecropper’s shack until saved from fiery destruction.

The Chieftains, March 1, 2017, Chevalier Theatre, Medford, MA

Lisa and I went to see the Chieftains tonight in Medford. It was an amazing show, not so much due to the displays of individual artistry (though those were plentiful), but due to the astonishing generosity on display.

The Chieftains are one of those musical groups that it’s possible to take for granted, owing not least to their incredible longevity (55 years and counting) and their recordings with seemingly every possible type of guest star. But when you see them live, you get the essence of what Paddy Moloney, a founding member and still going strong 55 years later, and his compeers Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff (Seán Keane was not there tonight) have been doing all these years.

Put simply, they’ve been pulling on threads.

Tonight’s threads included a diversion into country music, led by Jeff White (who helped out the Chieftains on Down the Old Plank Road), reminding one that it was the Irish and Scots who settled the Appalachians, then fanned out west, carrying Gaelic touched musical traditions with them. They included a gospel sextet singing “Shenandoah,” as part of a medley from their album Long Journey Home, as a reminder of how the music of that group touched on the core of American traditions. They included “The Foggy Dew,” a sobering reminder that not all Irish music is light hearted, and that some is paid for in blood. And they included a bagpipe group from the North Shore, and the house band from the Burren, reminding us that the music that the group brings has deep roots here in Massachusetts.

A wonderful night and a great show.

New music and bootleg roundup for February 23

I seem to be doing nothing but accumulating tabs in my browser recently. Here’s a roundup of new and old music that I’m looking forward to exploring.

Dust to Digital: Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is a little late for this past Christmas but I’m looking forward to exploring it next year. Sacred harp, blues, and folk Christmas songs is pretty much right up my alley.

Doom and Gloom from the Tomb: Mythic and Political Jazz. Not too late to check this out.

Doom and Gloom: Lou Reed, Paramount Theatre, Seattle, December 9, 1976. I saw Lou in Seattle in 2004 at the Wilbur, but I expect this to be a completely different experience—pre-sobriety, with saxophone and freshly recorded cuts from Coney Island Baby and Rock and Roll Heart.

Directions in Mid-Atlantic Music, Live 2-5-2017. New band adding saxophone and cracklebox and cello to the core of Tyler Magill’s Grand Banks.

Doom and Gloom: Television’s Marquee Moon. Pointer to both a Pitchfork article about the origins of the amazing album and bootlegs of live performances.

NYCTaper: Lee Ranaldo, January 22, 2017 Park Church Co-Op. Featuring guest appearance by Steve Gunn and members of Yo La Tengo, plus Neil Young and Velvet Underground covers. I’ve missed Sonic Youth and Lee, and looking forward to checking this one out.

Random Five: trade show edition

It’s been a while since I’ve spun the wheel. Here are the five tracks that came up this time:

  1. The Kingston Trio, “The Patriot Game” (Kingston Trio: Collector’s Series). From late in the original trio’s run, after Dave Guard had been replaced by John Stewart (the songwriter of “Daydream Believer,” not the comedian), comes this cover of Dominic Behan’s ballad protesting the murder of an IRA volunteer by another IRA member. It’s the same tune (“The Merry Month of May”) that Bob Dylan borrowed for “With God On Our Side.”
  2. Joan Baez, “Away in a Manger (French Version)” (Noel). Boy, we’re really mining the 60s folk vein here this morning. My mom had (and occasionally played) this Christmas album, but for me it’s best remembered for the instrumental arrangements by Peter (P.D.Q. Bach) Schickele. 
  3. Polyphony, “II. In te, Domine, speravi” (Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna). The most exquisitely dissonant movement of Lauridsen’s soaring setting of the Lux text. 
  4. Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free” (The Bootleg Series Vol.9: the Witmark Demos). Dylan goofs on an old Lead Belly song. 
  5. The Beach Boys, “Little Deuce Coupe” (Surfer Girl). Did you know that a “deuce coupe” was a 1932 Ford Model 18? Now you do. 

Vinyl resurgence

I added eleven new albums to my iTunes library last month. Nine of those were vinyl rips.

Partly this was ongoing work from my ten-year-old, still not yet completed project to digitize all my vinyl. (Pro tip: don’t inherit over fifty records when you’re in the middle of a project like that. Or have two children.) But a big chunk of it stemmed from two record store trips, one to Harvest Records in Asheville, and one to Barnes & Noble, of all places.

Digital has gotten increasingly more prevalent and convenient. I can buy and download my friend Tyler’s band’s live shows within a few weeks of their performance, and you can pry my Bandcamp subscription out of my cold, dead hands. But I had forgotten how desperately I missed the physical act of browsing.

Which is why I love this development, the launch of a new state of the art vinyl record manufacturing machine, so much. Bring it on!

Listening: Kate Tempest, KEXP live performance

I’m an occasional podcast listener. I subscribe to a handful, all music, including the mighty Funky16Corners and Iron Leg and a few from KEXP. Because all three of these have some shows that last a half hour or more—typically longer than my commute—I tend to binge-listen to catch up.

I had a long drive down to North Carolina starting Sunday and took the opportunity to catch up on my listening. I almost fast forwarded past the KEXP live sessions entries, but I’m glad I didn’t. Something about the announcer made me want to listen to the first episode I had downloaded, from an artist named Kate Tempest.

What an amazing session. Twenty-five minutes or so of live hip-hop and spoken word, telling the story of a group of Londoners and their lives at 4:18am. The net effect is somewhere between The Streets and Hamilton for the immediacy of the verbal portraits and the breadth of the impact. Well worth checking out.

“Go tell it on the mountain”

I’ve been writing about Christmas carols and songs embedded in a Boston Pops arrangement called “Songs from the Hill Folk” that ends the first half of this year’s Holiday Pops program. Unlike the other songs in the medley, the final one, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” was not collected (or written) by John Jacob Niles, but it was collected—by the first African American folk song collector, John Wesley Work, Jr. (And probably partly written by him too; it’s hard to tell with these things.)

Work was born after the Civil War in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Fisk University. He did post graduate work at Harvard and the University of Chicago, but in between returned to Fisk as a professor. In 1907 he published New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro, which contained the first publication of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” 

He was also active with the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other singing groups, leading a concert tour through the south. Some credit the Jubilee Singers’ at-first-reluctant embrace of public performance of spirituals (which were then thought to be a shameful product of slavery) with the financial survival of the university. 

The song’s text has proved elastic over the years, as some of these alternate verses illustrate:

When I was a seeker

I sought both night and day.

I ask de Lord to help me,

An’ He show me de way.

He made me a watchman

Upon the city wall,

An’ if I am a Christian

I am the least of all.

But it has been Work’s stanzas, based on the Christmas story in Luke, that have proven the most resilient. 

Except during the Civil Rights era. Then, protesters replaced “Jesus Christ is born” in the song’s chorus with “Let my people go,” and added entirely new verses to the song, such as “Who’s that yonder dressed in red?/Let my people go/Must be the children Bob Moses led/Let my people go.” So the song that once helped to save Fisk University, that historic center of African American culture, was pressed into service to help save the whole race from segregation and racism. 

“Kentucky Wassail”

As I’ve written about other Christmas songs featured by the Boston Pops this month, I at first left off “Kentucky Wassail” because there didn’t seem to be as much to say about it. But on reflection it’s worthy of a note in its own right.

Like “Jesus, Jesus, rest your head” and “The Seven Joys of Mary,” “Kentucky Wassail” was collected by Appalachian singer-songwriter and folk collector John Jacob Niles (his performance is here on Spotify). Folk songs vary from region to region and tend to drift in melody and lyric, but even so, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, there are points of resemblance to the “Somerset Wassail” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail.”

The family resemblance is likely due to the nature of the wassail song. It wasn’t performed in parlors or churches, but was sung out in the cold by revelers visiting from house to house. While wassailing may have originated as a pagan rite of propitiation to encourage the apple trees to bear fruit for cider (no, seriously!), its more well known use was by villagers while making their “luck visits.” The verse in the Kentucky Wassail about the “good man, good wife, are you within… think of us singing in the muck and mire” has its roots in a song from Jacobean England that might have been heard by Shakespeare: “Good master and mistress,/While you’re sitting by the fire,/Pray think of us poor children,/Who are wandering in the mire.”

The tradition of the luck visit was part of the overall English tradition of the Christmas misrule, in which the poorer villagers went to the houses of the wealthy to drink them a toast from the wassail-bowl and wish them good health with the expectation of a tip. The well-wishing is the linguistic origin of “wassail,” from the Old English wæs (þu) hæl (“be you healthy or whole”). But woe betide the wealthy gentleman who did not give generously to the wassailers! Hymns and Carols notes:

“the practice of wassailing has degenerated into nothing short of armed home invasions. The banning of Christmas altogether in both England and the American colonies by the Puritans and Pilgrims were, in small part, a reaction to these and other excesses (certainly larger theological issues were at work which led to the English Civil War)… In the early 1800s in New York, prominent citizens were very concerned about such practices (which also featured such actions as gunfire, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, excessive gambling, and riots…). It was their desire to take Christmas off the streets and into the homes. The evolution of Christmas practices in those years was a direct result. One change was from ‘wassailing’ (and a wassail bowl containing alcoholic beverages) to ‘caroling’ (which was more likely rewarded with hot chocolate, cookies, and the like).”

The important question: what was it like? Apparently the earliest wassails were spiced hard cider, but over time ale-based and wine-based varieties evolved. I like this version from Alton Brown which uses ale, apples, spices, and some eggs for body, and also this “lambswool” variant.

“The Seven Joys of Mary”

I continue to make my way through the carols in “Songs from the Hill Folk,” a medley in this year’s Boston Pops program (see my write-up about Jesus, Jesus, rest your head from a few days ago). If “Jesus, Jesus” found John Jacob Niles conflating the roles of song collector and songwriter—as he also famously did with “I Wonder as I Wander”—then “The Seven Joys of Mary” finds him more firmly in song collector territory.

I’ve written before about English ballads and ballad collectors, and “Seven Joys” (also called the “Seven Blessings of Mary”) is one of those. The tune that Niles found in Cherokee County, North Carolina in 1933 is quite unlike other tunes for the song, but hews closely to the traditions of the “number song.” There were many earlier known versions, including “The Ferste Joye, As I 3ou Telle” from the fifteenth century in England. Later versions included the African American teaching song “Sister Mary’s Twelve Blessings” (published in the Tuskegee Institute Collection in 1883).

Coming back to “The Ferste Joye,” I note two facts with some delight. The first is that it (and its fellow fifteenth century variant “The Ferste Joye as I Zu Telle” are both full-on Middle English carols. The second is that the Hymns and Carols of Christmas site, from which I drew some of this research, recommends using the Junicode font for optimal viewing of the text. That font is created by none other than University of Virginia professor Peter S. Baker, who taught me Old English, and helped me read through Beowulf, more than twenty years ago.