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 From late in the original trio’s run, after Dave Guard had been replaced by John Stewart (the songwriter of “Daydream Believer,” not the comedian), comes this cover of Dominic Behan’s ballad protesting the murder of an IRA volunteer by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.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head

The Boston Pops is performing a medley of Appalachian Christmas carols this year. Called “Songs from the Hill Folk,” it includes the predictable (“I Wonder as I Wander”), the unexpected (“Kentucky Wassail”), and the in-between—namely “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head.”

Though I’ve heard performances of this song over the years in the classical idiom, and sung more than a few of them, I never realized that the original was “collected” by folklorist John Jacob Niles. I put “collected” in quotes because the sources I’ve seen for the work put two dates of collection, 1912-1913 and 1932-1934. The implication is that the song was collected multiple times, or more likely, that it was put together from multiple collected songs that were originally separate.

Indeed, the chorus and verse seem as though they are two different songs, with the first two lines of the verse sounding as though they would be at home in the Southern Harmony and the chorus coming from somewhere else entirely. In fact, biographer Ron Pen notes that Niles collected “Jesus, Jesus, rest your head/You has got a corn shuck bed” with his mother—that it was in fact his first ever collected song—and a 1906 notebook sketch shows words and music for the chorus separate from the verse. Another source notes that Niles often based original songs on fragments of melody or lyric collected from traditional sources, which increased the songs’ acceptance among folk enthusiasts but greatly complicated the problem of establishing authorship when the songs became hits later.

More surprising is the location of one of its early performances, in 1912. Apparently Niles, like other musicians of the era, accepted a paying musical gig at a house of ill repute, and on Christmas morning 1912 performed ten songs a cappella including “Jesus, Jesus” for the madame and her “girls”!

It seems appropriate that this beautiful carol should have a complicated origin. Like “Jesus, Jesus,” Christmas combines the folk and the artistic, the tender and the rough, and the complex figure of John Jacob Niles is a perfect synthesizer for it.

We need a little Christmas

If ever there were a year where we needed a little Christmas, this is it. This song’s appearance on this year’s Holiday Pops got me thinking about my relation to it and curious about its origin.

My family’s normal ambient music ran from classical to easy listening. Though my mom had a few Simon and Garfunkel records in the basement, they weren’t in the rotation; instead you were more likely to hear Neil Diamond (via that one cassette that we had) or something classical on the LP. But in the car it was easy listening, and at Christmas we had the stack of favorite records that got played over and over again. Julie Andrews, the Boston Camerata, the Muppets with John Denver. And Percy Faith.

I didn’t really realize that Percy Faith was a pioneer of easy listening; I just thought this was what music sounded like in the 60s. That bouncy string section; the female singers who sounded as though they were about to break into a dance number.

I finally looked up the original song. Turns out it comes from Mame and was originally performed by Angela Lansbury. Who knew? But it explains something of the damn-the-torpedoes flavor of the lyric, that desperation behind the brassy melody and sense of top-hat-waving that seems to lurk in the background of most performances of the song.

Good travel planning

Here’s what I had queued up in my Fresh Cuts playlist for this trip:

  • De la Soul “And the Anonymous Nobody”
  • Donnie McCaslin, “Beyond Now”
  • Hoops, “Hoops EP”
  • Jungle Brothers, “Done By the Forces of Nature”
  • Mark Hollis, “Mark Hollis”
  • Sting, “57th and 9th”
  • A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
  • XTC, “Nonsuch”

You’d almost think I was planning ahead. 

Friday bootleg time

An assortment of selections from Doom and Gloom from the Tomb that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. In reverse chronological order (of posting, not of recording).

Sonic Youth, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, North Carolina, August 5, 2000 – falling neatly in between the first show I saw of theirs and the next two, squarely in the middle of their NYC Ghosts and Flowers period. Be ready for beat poetry.

Pharoah Sanders – Festival de Jazz de Nice, Nice, France, July 18, 1971  – Live Pharoah? Yes please.

Bill Evans Trio – Pescara Festival, Italy, July 18, 1969 / Vara Studio, Hilversum, Holland; March 26, 1969 – two live Bill Evans dates that sound worth checking out.

Yo La Tengo Does Dylan  – of course they do. Curious about the cover of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” which is on the short list of Dylan songs that I’d consider singing in public.

Leonard Cohen – The Paris Theatre, London, March 20, 1968 – OMG.