The Great American Songbook

My story is much too sad to be told
But practically everything leaves me totally cold
The only exception I know is the case
When I’m out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face
—- I Get a Kick Out of You, Cole Porter

God help me… I have been in a long, hopeless argument with my wife and kids and anyone else who will listen to me. I’m all alone here, though I don’t think I’m wrong – it’s just that nobody understands what I’m trying to say or the point I’m trying to make.

It all started out innocently enough. I wrote about it here – I discovered some early sixties music on YouTube through a show called Shindig!. The more I listened and the more I thought about it I came to the conclusion that this was a particularly fruitful period for great popular music. The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Supremes, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Temptations, James Brown, The Righteous Brothers, The Yardbirds, The Moody Blues, The Kinks, Roy Orbison, Martha and the Vandellas, Dionne Warwick, The Four Tops, The Ronettes… it goes on and on. The thing is all this amazing greatness is all at the same time. A window of only a couple of years spewing out all this diverse music that is still great today.

Take a look at the top pop songs of the last few years… It does not hold a candle.

So everyone is calling me “Grandpa” and naming recent music that doesn’t completely suck. The point isn’t that music now is bad (it might be) but that 64-65 or so was an explosion of creativity and quality. And this isn’t music of “my time” either. Everyone has a window where music means something special to them. For me that’s the mid 70’s to the early 80’s. That’s the time of Disco moving into punk and New Wave. Though I have fond memories and much love for that stuff – I don’t even pretend to think it is music of particular quality.

Another argument is that this is all purely subjective – that everyone likes what they like and nothing is better that anything else. I don’t buy that. There has to be gradations of quality. But for the life of me I can’t come up with an objective measure.

I have a lot more thinking and research on this – I’ll write more at a later date (sorry).

But things were about to get a lot worse for me. In looking around I came across this YouTube by Andrew Klavan. His thesis is that the best music was done in the 30’s and 40’s.

Ok, I disagree with him and could type up my rebuttal, maybe I will. But in thinking about this and doing research on “I get no kick from champagne“, I came across the idea of “The Great American Songbook.”

Wikipedia says:

According to the Great American Songbook Foundation:

The “Great American Songbook” is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as “American Standards”, the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film.

I think a more concise definition is a set of American songs that have stood the test of time. Wikipedia has an alphabetical list of songs that are generally considered to be part of the Songbook.

And as I started to move through the list I realized I had fallen down a steep and very deep rabbit hole.

Because this stuff is truly great and actually timeless. So now I’m working on my Great American Songbook playlist on Spotify (although there are several there already… I want my own – the best of the best – the ones that speak to me).

I think I’ll take some notes and write about some of the songs that stand out… but this is truly the kind of thing that can destroy my life.

Shindig!

“Even so, there were times I saw freshness and beauty. I could smell the air, and I really loved rock ‘n’ roll. Tears were warm, and girls were beautiful, like dreams. I liked movie theaters, the darkness and intimacy, and I liked the deep, sad summer nights.”
― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

There was live music at the start.

Today, when I came home from work, instead of doing something useful and trying to make this world a better place I sat down and watched (for no reason) a bunch of old episodes of Shindig! on Youtube.

I’m old enough to actually remember the show, I think. Let’s see… the show aired from September, 1964 to January, 1966 so I was seven, eight and almost nine. I guess that’s old enough to remember, but not enough to understand. I remember Shindig!‘s folk-oriented predecessor Hootenanny too – though barely.

What I really remember, and really didn’t understand, were the Shindig! dancers.

The television is grainy and not very well preserved. But the music! I hate to sound like the old man shouting to get off of his lawn – but that stuff was so much better than what we have to listen to today.

So much better.

A Hard Day’s Night

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
― John Lennon

Music at the Brewery Tour

I was worn out, innervated and wanted to watch something that didn’t take a lot of thought. Cruising through The Criterion Channel’s streaming potpourri, and chose the Beatles’ 1964 chestnut, A Hard Day’s Night.

I remember when I first saw the Beatles, in about 1963, I was six. They were at the airport in New York, on their first trip – it seemed to be a big thing back then when a band crossed the ocean… I’m not sure why. On the news, I thought they were women. It was a different time.

I did enjoy the film. First, the music, you forget how good the early Beatles were. It still sounds great today.

I saw the movie sometime… maybe a year or so after it came out. What I remembered the most was the character of Paul’s Grandfather. He steals every scene he is in. He is such a clean little old man.

But what really stands out to me is the (more or less) subtle, absurdist humor. The film is really just a bunch of Beatles songs, strung out like a string of pearls, interspersed with little funny bits. The funny bits are strange, though. Today, the film would be full of slapstick and broad humor… but here, everything is a little off.

And a lot of fun.

For example here are a couple more scenes. One, with the brilliant character actress, Anna Quayle, trying to figure out who John Lennon looks like.

Or there’s this extended scene with George Harrison – a comment on fashion and trends – still relevant today.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Floundering in a Mire of Spectacle

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.”
― Patti Smith, Just Kids

Deep Elllum, Dallas, Texas

I do nothing anymore. I’m reduced to looking at things I once did and regurgitating them, slightly re-edited.

It’s not good enough, but it’s all I got.

Now He Dances To Bring Her Back

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”
― Emily Jane Brontë , Wuthering Heights

Dancers, Arts District, Dallas

Dancers, Arts District, Dallas

Rolling Stone Top 500 Songs Goes Woke

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Brave Combo

Ok, first, let me admit a few things:

  1. I’m an old man. Nobody cares what I think.
  2. I listen to mostly classical music (if I were to make a list of “Greatest Songs” it would have such things as Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Nessun Dorma!, and 9th Symphony 4th Movement Ode to Joy.
  3. I don’t consider Hip Hop to be music. I think it is primarily an invention of the Big Corporation Music Industry to construct a genre of popular music that is designed to maximize record company profits with minimal risk and effort. I know this is not a popular opinion, but it is one that I am sure is at least partially true.
  4. I am so, so sick of Autotune. My ears can pick up any excessive use of that evil technology and will switch away from it. I feel it removes all emotion and feeling from music – leaving behind boring noise. There are very few popular songs released in the last decade that aren’t ruined by Autotune.

With those points out of the way, I will rant about the release of the 2021 Rolling Stone top 500 songs.

Rolling Stone magazine released a new version of their 500 Greatest Songs list, the first in 17 years. The magazine, in an introduction to the list, notes, ‘a lot has changed since 2004; back then the iPod was relatively new, and Billie Eilish was three years old. So we’ve decided to give the list a total reboot . . . The result is a more expansive, inclusive vision of pop, music that keeps rewriting its history with every beat.’

Bullshit.

I enjoyed the old versions of the lists. I would look through the list and see if I could find something that I had forgotten about or maybe underrated… it was a good source of musical education and ideas. There were, of course, disagreements between me and the lists… but all in all there was mutual respect.

But the new list… There are 254 songs that weren’t in the 2004 list… that means that more than half of the greatest songs of 2004 are no longer great. Let’s see…

Starting at the top… a new #1 – Respect by Aretha Franklin. I have absolutely no problem with that. It’s up there with maybe five others that could be rotated in and out. Personally, I would put Layla in at #1 – which in 2004 was 27, between A Day in the LIfe and (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. OK, good stuff all. This year, Layla drops all the way to 224… WTF?

But in the 2021 list, problems start with #2 – instead of Satisfaction (by the Stones) we have Fight the Power by Public Enemy. Ok, not that bad of a song… but #2… over Satisfaction, which drops all the way to #31, right below Royals by Lorde. Really?

You might like Lorde… but is she better than The Rolling Stones? I don’t think so. Royals is catchy… but it doesn’t belong on any all-time list. If anybody, and I mean anybody is still listening to that in twenty years (or even five years) I will be shocked. Satisfaction was released fifty-six years ago, more than half a century, and has held up – it’s as spine-tingling today as the day it was released.

So, let’s talk about age. I know I’m old… but…. I downloaded the 2021 list into a spreadsheet and sorted them by year released. There are nineteen songs released the year I was born, 1957 (I told you I was old) or older. Here they are:

242Great Balls of FireJerry Lee Lewis1957
216Jailhouse RockElvis1957
124That’ll Be the DayBuddy Holly1957
80What’d I SayRay Charles1957
347Heartbreak HotelElvis1956
299I Put a Spell on YouJay Hawkins1956
170In the Still of the NiteFive Satins1956
147Blueberry HillFats Domino1956
76I Walk the LineJohnny Cash1956
425Mannish BoyMuddy Waters1955
277Bo DiddleyBo Diddley1955
102MaybellineChuck Berry1955
35Tutti FruttiLittle Richard1955
318Hound DogBig Mama Thornton1953
237Your Cheatin’ HeartHank Williams1953
229This Land is Your LandWoody Guthrie1951
165I’m So Lonesome I Could CryHank Williams1949
21Strange FruitBillie Holiday1939
481Cross Road BluesRobert Johnson1937

That is a hell of a selection. They are older than I am and I have heard them all a thousand times and they are all great. The highest rated is Strange Fruit and the lowest is Mannish Boy.

So here are the nineteen newest songs on the list:

438Savage (Remix)Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyonce2020
346DynamiteBTS2020
329SafaeraBad Bunny2020
490Old Town RoadLil Nas X2019
178Bad GuyBillie Eilish2019
137Thank U, NextArianna Grande2019
384I Like ItCardi B2018
497Truth HurtsLizzo2017
428Sign of the TimesHarry Styles2017
487Cranes in the SkySolange2016
451Bad and BoujeeMigos2016
383RedboneChildish Gambino2016
73FormationBeyonce2016
417Uptown FunkMark Ronson2015
373Hotline BlingDrake2015
45AlrightKendrick Lamar2015
357Blank SpaceTaylor Swift2014
465Get LuckyDaft Punk2013
362Merry Go RoundKacey Musgraves2013

Do you want to know how many of these I am familiar with – how many I recognize… none. Absolutely none. I’m sure if you played these for me a few would catch my ear… a hook that I remember as I reached for the radio dial, maybe. But do I think I regret not knowing any of these…? I don’t think so.

Looking down the list in order of dates, the newest one I recognize is Summertime Sadness by Lana del Rey. I’m actually a fan of her. But do I think Summertime Sadness is one of the 500 greatest songs of all time? Hell no.

Next to Summertime Sadness is Call me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. That is certainly a catchy little tune… but is it Great? Is in one of the Best? No, no, no.

At one time Rolling Stone represented Rock and Roll, which represented rebellion and innovation. It does not represent that anymore. It represents Wokeness and Diversity… which is Rebellion and Innovation run through the filter of Corporate Profits and Elitism until it is an evil mutation.

And that is all I’m going to say today. I have to go outside and yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

Pink Moon

Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all

—-Nick Drake Pink Moon

The moon rising over the Dallas skyline and the pond at Trammell Crow Park. From the October Full Moon Ride.

I was driving in to work, the morning sun still a burning ball stuck to the horizon, listening to the local eclectic FM radio station. I wasn’t paying much attention until a song I don’t think I had heard before came on – the speakers let loose with some amazing excellent guitar finger picking. For a second, I though maybe Trace Bundy or Nils Lofgren… but then the singing started. The voice was delicate and unique – the lyrics mysterious and elegiac. The arrangement was simple – guitar, bass, congas. Perfect. An amazing song.

That’s why I listed to that station in the car (or Radio Paradise at home) – to discover something that I had missed before… a new rabbit hole to fall down. At the next red light I grabbed my phone and checked the station’s playlist. It was a song called Three Hours, by Nick Drake.

That evening I sat down and listened to all of Nick Drake’s discography (only three albums). I read all I could find about his heartbreaking story – he struggled with depression and died at 26 of an overdose of anti-depressants (maybe suicide, maybe not).

As his depression worsened he moved back in with his parents. He could not perform live (he was always shy and remote on stage – even at his best). There are no films or live recordings, no nothing other than the three strange and wonderful albums he cranked out – plus a few outtakes and oddities.

His last album, Pink Moon, spoke to me particularly. He was the only performer on the album, singing and playing acoustic guitar with a single piano overdub on the title track.

Nick Drake was almost completely unknown during his life. His music was liked by those in the know but it didn’t fit any category (too jazzy for folk, too folky for jazz, too unique for anything else). But after his death, his popularity began to slowly grow. He gained a bit of posthumous fame when Volkswagen used Pink Moon in one of their commercials for the Cabriolet. Sales in the U.S. of the album grew from a measly 6,000 copies, to 74,000 copies in 2000. As of 2004 it had sold 329,000 copies in the United States.

The music sounds familiar to me, though I don’t remember the commercial:

I’ve been listening to this song over and over.

Homeward Bound

I’m sittin’ in the railway station
Got a ticket to my destination
On a tour of one-night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one-man band

—-Paul Simon, Homeward Bound

The view from the parking lot as I go home from work. Dallas, Texas

I was driving in to work – I often listen to podcasts in my car, but today I had KXT 91.7 (listen here) on the radio. I always love that station – no commercials, no stupid DJ yakking yet DJ curated, and a wide variety of tunes. As I pulled into my parking spot and began to put my mask on the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut Homeward Bound came on. A great song. I sat there and listened to it before trudging across the parking lot.

Afterward they said, “Homeward Bound, an early Simon and Garfunkel tune, from 1966.”

1966. I was nine years old. I remember 1966. I wasn’t listening to very much music then and don’t remember Homeward Bound when it came out. But I was starting. I do remember a television documentary on the burgeoning folk scene featuring interviews with Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t know who they were and wondered if I’d ever hear anything from them. Four years later Bridge Over Troubled Water was released and I remember the exact spot where my father’s car was when I first heard it on the radio.

Sitting down and looking through the hit songs from each year – I started listening in 1967. My family was not musical and I had to pick it up on my own, mostly from friends. By 1968 I was listening to the radio a lot and by 1969 I eagerly awaited every Friday and that week’s top forty announcement on WHB (the wet hamburger station) out of Kansas City.

So I guess I can say I started listening to popular music in 1966 or so. That was fifty five years ago.

It doesn’t seem like that long. Things have changed (especially the digital revolution) but 1966 wasn’t that much different. One way to look at it was they were playing a song from 1966 on the radio on my way to work and nobody thought much about it.

I was born nine years earlier, in 1957. That does seem like a different age. The sixties were a real watershed – where things changed in a significant, permanent way. But still… there was rock and roll, at least the stirrings of rock and roll, in 1957 (Rock Around the Clock came out in 1954).

But go in the other direction – fifty five years before 1957 was 1902. That’s hard for me to comprehend. One year before the Wright brothers first flew. World War I was a decade away. The Roaring twenties two decades – the depression and dust bowl three decades away. WWII a nightmare far into the future. Now, I did look at the top songs of 1902 and was shocked that I was familiar with a few of them – and the #18 song won an Academy Award in 1974 and rose to #4 on the charts at that time….

But still, I can’t even imagine 1902. My grandfather wasn’t born yet. Yet it’s the same distance in time from my birth as Homeward Bound is from today. Years and years.

Every day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines
And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger’s face I see
Reminds me that I long to be

Homeward bound

It’s Bad You Know

Woke up this morning, feel ’round for my shoes
You know ’bout that babe, had them old walkin’ blues
Woke up this morning, I feel ’round for my shoes

You know ’bout that babe
Lord, I had them old walkin’ blues

Leavin’ this morning, I had to go ride the blinds
I’ve been mistreated, don’t mind dying
This morning, I had to go ride the blinds

I’ve been mistreated
Lord, I don’t mind

People tell me walkin’ blues ain’t bad
Worst old feeling I most ever had
People tell me the old walkin’ blues ain’t bad

Well, it’s the worst old feeling
Lord, I most ever had

—- R.L. Burnside – Walkin’ Blues

Dan Colcer Deep Ellum Art Park Dallas, Texas

Sometimes, when I’m driving my car… and I’m driving more than I like, because of COVID changes it’s impossible for me to ride my bike to work… I listen to podcasts from my phone. That takes too much fiddling and setup though – and I’m late in the morning and lazy in the afternoon. So I listen to a local radio station – KXT91.7 (you can listen online no matter where you live) – it’s a great station: no commercials, the DJs pick their own music and don’t talk (I hate the cackling stupid jokes of regular radio) and they sometimes they play your favorite music. Sometimes, best of all, they play stuff you’ve never heard before.

On my way in to work yesterday I heard some music I had never heard before and thought it was great. At my desk I looked up their playlist and found what I had heard was a North Mississippi blues master R. L. Burnside. The song on the radio was It’s Bad You Know from the album Come On In.

In this album, released in 1998, Burnside’s classic acoustic blues is mixed with modern electronic beats into a sort of hybrid dance music. From the wikipedia notes:

The album was expected to alienate purist fans of blues, but sold strongly, and peaked at number 20 on the Core Radio Chart. In addition to significant airplay, an ensuing music clip was slotted in MTV’s 120 Minutes. By March 1999, it had become Epitaph’s best-selling record, despite the label being, at its core, an outlet for punk rock. Burnside said that fans loved the album, feeling that both it and Ass Pocket “brought more crowds to the blues. They love it.” He reckoned that this was due to “trying to make people dance to the blues again.”

I had never heard of this album or R. L. Burnside… which is not surprising – in 1998 I had a couple of young kids running around the house and was isolated from the real world. I did have at least one song of his – doing Dylan’s Everything is Broken from Tangled Up In Blues but had never really followed down that particular rabbit hole.

Thanks to Spotify I now have ready access to R. L. Burnside and his catalog. Great stuff.

From my comments – check this out – Livin’ the Blues