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Monday, December 27, 2010

Thinking About Songs

Song-writing is often referred to as a craft, not an art. That makes sense to me. There are rules that you can apply to constructing a song, and a good song is usually a brief collection of words, carefully chosen. Songs have verses and choruses. They often have two contrasting sections, the theme and the bridge. They have "hooks" that repeat and grab the listener's attention. All these components can be studied and, with effort, mastered. I have also heard that there are many more sad songs than happy songs - sadness generally contains more drama and conflict than happiness, and thus provides greater opportunities to grab and hold the listener's interest.

If you sit down and read song lyrics, they often are not terribly impressive. The rhymes can be obvious and a bit banal, the thematic material can be weak. Most song lyrics don't qualify as great poetry. But if those lyrics are combined with a well written melody and a talented singer, a magical transformation can occur.

Since this is the holiday season, we have been hearing for the past several weeks, over and over, some incredibly banal lyrics - Christmas songs! OK, some songs get a pass due to their long history and connection to the Christmas story ("Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "We Three Kings," et al) but others are incredibly bad ("Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and the horrific "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer!"). But even in this wasteland of terrible lyrics and simplistic tunes, there are some gems. In 1944, Judy Garland sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the film version of "Meet me in St. Louis." Here is a video of that performance. This is a GREAT song - this version contains the original melancholy line "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." "Merry Little Christmas" struck a chord with the Greatest Generation - they were fighting in WWII when this version of the song came out; it articulated the longing for home and hope for a more peaceful future.

Hugh Martin wrote the lyrics for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." His original version was even more downbeat than the version that Judy Garland recorded. Here is the alleged original draft:

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, pop that champagne cork
Next year we will all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more
But at lease we all will be together, if the Fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now

So this song contains all the components of greatness - intense lyrics, relevent to the time and the audience, yet universally appealing to anyone who has been separated from looved ones during the holiday season. Great craft is at work here - notice the internal rhymes in the two-line bridge ("olden days...golden days," "dear to us...near to us"). And the melody is both memorable and beautiful - it contains slow arpeggios and artful modulations that take it outside the "Jingle Bell" zone of stupidity.

Hugh Martin is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It is easy to understand why.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day 2010

On the day after Christmas, we are getting dumped on here in Chicago. We have big snowcakes on our yard furniture outside the window (full disclosure - the picture above is a random Chicago snow photo grab from a Google search, not my backyard).

This is Boxing Day, the traditional day for tipping service folks and giving money to the poor in Commonwealth countries. It is also known in some religous circles as St. Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Stephen - Stephen being the first Christian martyr. You might remember the words of the Christmas carol:

Good King Wencelaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Cool and crisp and even.

We don't pay much attention to Boxing Day in the USofA. December 26 is "Exchange the Presents and Hit the Sales Day." But in this time of economic weakness, high unemployment and other tribulations, hitting the "alms box" with a little cash is more important than usual. Food banks are my preferred charity this year. This is a good day to make a deposit.

I just finished thumbing theourgh the Sunday New York Times; December 26th is also the day for the NYT's "Year in Pictures" section. From the deep tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to the giddy elation of the San Francisco Giants World Series championship, the images were well-chosen. Everyone has memories of the personal high points and low points of the year. Whatever your personal reality might be right now, the best path is the one that leads forward. For me, on this Boxing Day, my first step on my path forward is to resume my close personal realtionship with my snow shovel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I know this guy...

I know this guy who can take a $25 harmonica, disassemble it, apply amazing focused skill upon it and transform it into a high-quality instrument - the harmonica version of a Martin guitar. He is completely booked by professional harmonica players; you can't hire him to build a harmonica if you aren't already a client.

I know this guy who is an unbelievably talented electric guitarist - blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, country - you name it, he can play it. He is a deeply intelligent and well-educated person. If you are lucky enough to convince him to play in your band, your band will sound 200% better. But he absolutely abuses his health; very overweight, diabetic and almost unable to walk these days.

I know this guy who will tell you that he was married for "29 years, 11 months and 21 days" when all hell broke loose. His wife read "Eat Pray Love" and that was that. It was not a nice divorce.

I know this guy who is a gifted business executive. He worked far fewer hours than most people in his industry - so smart, he could get it all done quick. He called out a borderline psychotic CEO regarding dodgy business practices and he received a massive severence payment (the CEO launched him; his contract paid out). He received options in his next employer, a very sleepy insurance conglomerate, instead of a cash bonus; a big European company bought the sleepy conglomerate and the options generated yet another massive payment. His good luck never seems to end. He is retired now, at the age of 54.

I know this guy who is a wicked fit, tall, military man, a captain in the Illinois National Guard, who has done two tours in Iraq and two tours in Afganistan. His hobby - raising miniature dachsunds.

I know a lot of unusual guys.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A very Bad Day For the Harmonica Community

Robin Rogers and Chris Michalek both passed away within a 24 hour period. I never met either of them, but I admired them greatly. Since I sing a bit and play harmonica, I can recognize great singers and harmonica players. Robin Rogers was a marvelous, traditional blues harp player with a gorgeous voice - a true blues singer. She has been fighting cancer for a long while and was told that her time on this earth was soon to end. She faced that truth bravely. Listen to this interview, if you dare. My heart broke when I heard it.

Chris Michalek did not have advance notice. He collapsed and died yesterday. I assume that he was a victim of heart failure. Chris was one of the top diatonic harmonica players on the planet. He was a master of blues, jazz, rock, funk -- you name it. He had nailed the overblows and overdraws that frustrate lesser players (like me). He knew how to properly amplify the instrument to turn it into a massive musical presence, driving the band. Here is a YouTube Video of Chris playing some awesome jazz.

Chris hadn't reached his 40th year. Robin hadn't reached her 54th year. Those of us who love harmonica blues and jazz are bereft. It hurts to lose hugely talented people.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Musical Ditch-Digging: Potbelly at Adams and Wacker, Chicago IL

The ultimate musical ditch-digging gig in Chicago is playing at a Potbelly restaurant. Potbelly is a chain of sub shops with a cutesy decor and "quasi-cool" demeanor. One of the touches - live music in most stores, usually a singer-guitar banger. Most of the folks that take these gigs are young, mediocre wannabees. For the past few months, I have been buying my lunch at the Potbelly shop at Adams and Wacker. It is a 2 story joint, and the musican's nook is on the second floor balcony. When I came in for my turkey sandwich today, I was startled - I heard good music from pouring out of the poor soul that was in that tiny nook on the balcony!!

Imagine this - you have a passion for music. You are a young, attractive female. You have a lovely voice, somewhere in the alto/soprano range. You are a decent acoustic guitar player and do a great job of backing up your own vocals. You have been breaking your ass writing songs and hoping to get attention from somebody, anybody. And you are playing a 3 hour solo gig for peanuts on the second floor of a sandwich shop and NO ONE is listening!!! Yes, my friends, this is called Musical Ditch Digging.

The artist at my local Potbelly was Starina Catchatoorian. I heard her play a few tunes, including a very emotional and sincere cover of the Beatles tune, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." This is a talented musician. She said that she was a bit tired because she was up until 3AM last night recording songs.

So if you like female singer-songwriters, check out Starina. Here is a link to some of her music. Think good thoughts about this striving, talented person.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The voice of Ron santo

The Tribune put together an MP3 containing snips of Cubs broadcasts. Ron Santo and Pat Hughes were a great team. And just listen to the humanity in Ron's voice! Chick here for the link.

Is it OK to grieve over someone you never met?

Friday, December 03, 2010

Losses, and the Cold

The cold air has moved into E-Town and the rest of the Chicagoland region. When the calendar reaches December 1, the serious chill hits. Tonight, we should see six inches of snow. I still have a few things to do to prepare for winter - turn off the pipes leading to the outdoor faucets, that sort of thing. The warmth and the birdsong and the flowers in Amanda's garden are lost, for a while.

I sat with an old colleague of mine recently, drinking coffee. I hadn't seen this guy in 20 years or so. I remember him as a big, handsome, fit Alpha Male. He is 65 now and fighting through his second go-round with cancer (he beat prostate cancer, now on to melanoma). The real estate investment firm he works for has delivered losses to investors over the past couple of years. He is moving reluctantly into retirement. He is still handsome, but he has a haunted look around his eyes these days.

And today we received the news of Ron Santo's passing. For Chicagoans with any interest in baseball, Ron was a brother, a fellow fan that wore his emotions on his sleeve. I feel like I have lost a family member, which is ridiculous - I never met the man. But I listened to him broadcast Cubs games all summer long for many years. It was a strange connection; impersonal yet intense. Ron Santo fought diabetes his entire adult life, lost his legs to the disease, yet he kept moving ahead and achieving great things while staying connected to everyday people. In Chicago, we grieve for our loss in this cold season.

The season will turn, the Christmas and New Year holidays will distract us, the flowers will bloom again. But for now, at the front-end of a long winter, it looks like a cold, cold world.