Here’s a fantastic Bob Dylan song that’s even lovelier when sung by his ex-paramour, the great Joan Baez. I came upon this song by accident on YouTube, and remembered two things: what a great voice she had (up there with Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, my two favorites) and what a great song this is.
It was written by Dylan around 1967 and first recorded by The Band (you can hear the group and Dylan nine years later here). But nobody, to my mind, even came close to the quality of Joan Baez’s version. Below is the live version of the song performed at Woodstock. Just a great song, an angelic voice, and a guitar.
It’s a gorgeous song, fusing a prisoner’s yearning for freedom with religious yearning for salvation. If you want a recorded version with more instrumentation, go here.
Below is one of Dylan’s versions. The reason his aren’t as good is simply that he’s nowhere as good a singer as Baez. It still amazes me, though, that something of this quality could come out of Dylan, just as all his great hits amaze me.
On hearing Dylan perform his song “With God on Our Side“, Baez later said, “I never thought anything so powerful could come out of that little toad”
But of course they then had a relationship.
Two other versions of note. First, the trio of Mama Cass, Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell singing the song on Mama Cass’s television show. To be honest, this version doesn’t move me that much, but it is a collection of great vocalists.
And the gala version with Dylan, the Band, and a bunch of stars (Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison) from the 1976 version The Last Waltz:
Dylan must be ranked as one of the greatest songwriters of the late 1900s, but not as a great singer/songwriter. The man couldn’t sing that well, nor was he a great instrumentalist. All his talent went into the song.
Here is a bit less than half of the greatest medley of rock songs ever put on vinyl: the last cut (save for “Her Majesty”) on the second side of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” And here a firmament of rock stars performs the second part of the medley. See how many instrumentalists you recognize. I’ll tell you that the orchestral conductor is George Martin.
If you know your rock, you’ll recognize at least four musicians.
The restored version has eight separate tunes welded together in an “organic whole”; you won’t find anything like that these days of depauperate popular music. This is simply magisterial, and you can tell me if anything in the last couple years even comes close.
(In the “restored” version, “Her Majesty” is in the middle, where it belongs.) These three were largely written by McCartney. And I love the last line and the music around it.
John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine” has become a sort of anthem for humanists, and is without doubt Lennon’s most famous solo composition and performance. Its plea for harmony, secularism, and, I suppose, income redistribution, constitute the reasons for Gary Abernathy’s objection to the song, detailed in an essay in the Washington Post. Click on the screenshot to read:
The backstory is that Julian Lennon (John’s son and the inspiration for the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”) said he’d never perform his father’s song. But he changed his mind when Putin attacked Ukraine. As NPR reported:
Julian Lennon, the son of the late Beatles star turned solo artist John Lennon, publicly performed his father’s hit song “Imagine” last week for the first time. He said he did so in support of Ukraine.
“As a human, and as an artist, I felt compelled to respond in the most significant way I could,” Lennon tweeted. “So today, for the first time ever, I publicly performed my Dad’s song, IMAGINE.”
In a video of the performance, Lennon and a guitarist sit in a room illuminated by candles. The camera slowly swings around them as Lennon sings the antiwar anthem.
“Why now, after all these years? — I had always said, that the only time I would ever consider singing ‘IMAGINE’ would be if it was the ‘End of the World’ …” Lennon said.
He suggested that the song represents “our collective desire for peace worldwide” and that it transports listeners to a place “where love and togetherness become our reality.”
Noting the millions of people who’ve fled the violence in Ukraine, Lennon called on world leaders to support refugees around the world and urged people to “advocate and donate from the heart.”
Here’s Lennon’s performance, which I like.
But as you can tell from the title of the op-ed, Abernathy doesn’t like it. I couldn’t figure out why from his title, but when you know that Abernathy is a pro-Trump Republican, it makes sense.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Post, is a freelance writer based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region. After spending 13 years as an editor at three Ohio newspapers from 1983 to 1996, Abernathy worked in Republican Party politics in Ohio and West Virginia, as well as for an Ohio congressman and two U.S. senators. He returned to journalism in 2011, serving until July 2018 as publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette, one of the few newspapers to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016. Abernathy has served as an on-air election analyst for the PBS NewsHour, along with other frequent television and radio appearances. He has won numerous industry awards for column writing, editing and reporting.
I’ve put the lyrics to “Imagine” below the fold so you can see the lyrics Abernathy objects to. Quotes from his op-ed are indented, italics are mine.
Here are the three things Abernathy doesn’t like about the song.
1.) “No religion.”
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try,” the song opens — not a happy thought for Christians and members of other religions who put their hopes in the belief in an eternal afterlife. We don’t want to imagine no heaven. Why would we try?
“No hell below,” suggests the next line. Well, yes, I have to admit that would be nice, but if there’s a heaven …
If there’s a Heaven, then, says the Bible, there’s a hell. He continues
Yes, I know — religion has caused countless wars through the centuries, and so much of our social and political divide is centered on religious differences. There are those who think we’d all just be better off without any belief in God.
And maybe they’d be right. Those who say that in a world without God, people would find other reasons to kill each other, but we already have plenty of reasons. The way I see it, the fewer excuses we have to divide people into groups, the less xenophobia and hatred we’d have. And so I feel (though I can’t prove it), that Lennon is right here: without religion we’d have less reasons to hate and slaughter our fellow humans.
2.) “Nothing to kill or die for”. To Abernathy this is manifestly unpatriotic, because we should be willing to kill or die for our country or for freedom.
“And no religion too,” it dreams. Again, many of us think religion is a good thing, just like “countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours. . . .
Later, the song suggests we imagine “nothing to kill or die for.” Aren’t some things worth dying for? Many have died for our freedoms. I’d hate to imagine where we’d be if they hadn’t.
“Countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours”? What the deuce is he talking about? Wouldn’t it be better if there hadn’t been “countries” in the the first place? They’re just another source of division and hatred. One feels that Abernathy is almost glad that countries exist so he could say he’d die for America and its freedoms. But what if he lived in Russia, or North Korea, or the Afghanistan of the Taliban? Nevertheless, he persists:
. . . And maybe in a world without countries, what would otherwise be Ukraine and Russia could coexist harmoniously. For anyone who feels that way, “Imagine” is for you. (Had John Lennon lived, I think, he would have been right at home in the modern social justice movement.)
Indeed! He’s undercutting his own point. And I don’t think Lennon is saying he’s not willing to kill or die to protect his family. He’s talking about the harmful effect of divisions in humanity—divisions that cause enmity.
3.) “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can/No need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of man.” This means only one thing to Abernathy: rampant socialism:
Again, many of us think religion is a good thing, just like “countries” are for those of us who are proud of ours, and “possessions” for those of us who believe in the bedrock concept of private property.
. . . “Imagine,” as beautiful as it is, contains troubling imagery for anyone who cares about faith, patriotism and capitalism. And really, we don’t have to imagine this world. We’ve seen it. It’s called socialism.
Well, you could also call it “democratic socialism”; the system seen in Scandinavia. And that doesn’t sound too bad!
There’s no doubt that Lennon didn’t personally accept the concept of “no possessions”, as he kept a lot of his wealth. I think he’s calling for income distribution, for with “no possessions” it would be hard to live at all. He wants equality, or so I think, because inequality of income or “stuff” is another source of hatred and division. The mere existence of “possessions” doesn’t cause division; it’s the unequal distribution of possessions that does.
In the end, Abernathy wonders if he’s just being an old man yelling at the clouds:
Am I reading too much into a song that just makes a simple plea for peace and unity? Maybe. Maybe not. For many of us, “Imagine” is a siren song to the rocky cliffs of destruction. I love the song for its lilting melody and seductive imagery. I find myself humming along. Imagine if everything were perfect. Wouldn’t that be nice? But then I think about the words: No heaven. No countries. No religion. No possessions. And I make myself snap out of it. Can’t we find a better anthem?
I appreciate Julian Lennon’s intentions in wanting to offer hope to Ukraine. He said the song “reflects the light at the end of the tunnel that we are all hoping for.” Good for him. And his father’s song isn’t going anywhere. It’s become the classic invocation of peace and harmony, while any opposition is just curmudgeonly and old-fashioned.
But if the light at the end of the tunnel is the one of these lyrics, I’m not sure I want to step into it. Imagine that.
Yes, he is an old man yelling at the clouds. He wants his religion, his wonderful America, and he seems to have no problem with inequality. No wonder his paper was pro-Trump!
Maybe readers could suggest a song that better embodies Abernathy’s principles. I suspect it would be a country song.
Click on “Continue reading” to see the lyrics to “Imagine”
The original Cancelled Person—Salman Rushdie, who was cancelled in the worst way possible—now has a Substack site called “Salman’s Sea of Stories.” You can subscribe for $60 per year, or read some for free. The piece below, inspired by Rushdie’s viewing of Peter Jackson’s new 8-hour documentary series, “Beatles” Get Back“, is free. Click on the screenshot to read it.
I like Rushdie (Midnight’s Children is one of the best novels of our time) and of course I love the Beatles, and so I’m chuffed to find that Rushdie also likes the Beatles:
The three episodes of Jackson’s cut are full of squabbling, dithering, vamping, and it often feels like watching the end of a marriage. Here are four men who obviously love each other deeply, but are finding it difficult to stay together. (And no, I don’t think Yoko broke up the Beatles. Maybe Allen Klein did. But I don’t believe that either. They just grew apart and went their separate ways.) The most heart-stopping moments are the ones where we watch, in real time, the birth of their songs. The moment when Paul is fooling around on his guitar and then suddenly begins to play what all of us instantly recognize as the opening riff of Get Back is the most powerful. He plays it, changes it, finds it, and then a phrase comes to him. Jojo was a man da-da da-da-da da-da. And after that the song just bursts out of him, like a small miracle. Later, when he’s trying to get the lyrics right (he can’t settle on Sweet Loretta’s surname) we actually want to help him. “ It’s Sweet Loretta Martin, Paul,” we want to shout. “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman.”
On January 30, 1969, Rushdie was on his way to a job interview in London when he had his Beatles encounter. He passed by the Concert on the Rooft!
I turned down Savile Row and saw a small crowd on the sidewalk outside No. 3, many of them looking up towards the sky.
I asked someone, “What’s going on?” “It’s the Beatles,” he replied. “They’re on the roof.”
Watching Beatles: Get Back, you might form the impression that everyone at street level could hear the concert perfectly. That wasn’t true. We heard a sort of loud generalized music noise, without being able to make out what was being sung or played.
He got bored and left, because he really couldn’t hear the music well. But apparently the concert is presented in all its close-up glory in Jackson’s film. Now I must see it!
Watching the Concert on the Roof more than half a century later, I was filled with emotion. There was the memory of my own distant youth, encountering history and then leaving it behind. (I’m nowhere in the documentary. Believe me, I looked.) There was sadness at the loss of John and George. There was regret that they stopped touring or giving concerts, because, like their arch-rivals The Rolling Stones, they were a great live band, and it was both exhilarating and sad to watch, in particular, John and Paul singing and playing in joyful harmony, obviously loving what they were doing in that short, inspired set, the last time they ever did it “live.”
The concert was about 20 minutes long before the police broke it up, so Rushdie was lucky to have been passing by at that moment. Here’s the performance (not from Jackson’s film).
I knew that Peter Jackson was making a three-part, 8 hour series incorporating never-before-seen Beatles clips, but I didn’t realize that it’s already out. Yes, it’s on Disney+, but who cares. I’ve liked everything that Jackson directed, and this movie most resembled “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which was great.
Here’s the trailer, with the YouTube notes below it:
The YouTube notes (there’s also a Wikipedia article which gives the episodes and more information):
Made entirely from never-before-seen, restored footage, it provides the most intimate and honest glimpse into the creative process and relationship between John, Paul, George, and Ringo ever filmed. Be sure to check them both out, and don’t forget to watch “The Beatles: Get Back” when it rolls out over three days, November 25, 26, and 27, 2021, exclusively on Disney+.
Directed by three-time Oscar®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “They Shall Not Grow Old”), “The Beatles: Get Back” takes audiences back in time to the band’s January 1969 recording sessions, which became a pivotal moment in music history. The docuseries showcases The Beatles’ creative process as they attempt to write 14 new songs in preparation for their first live concert in over two years. Faced with a nearly impossible deadline, the strong bonds of friendship shared by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are put to the test. The docuseries is compiled from nearly 60 hours of unseen footage shot over 21 days, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1969, and from more than 150 hours of unheard audio, most of which has been locked in a vault for over half a century. Jackson is the only person in 50 years to have been given access to this Beatles treasure trove, all of which has now been brilliantly restored. What emerges is an unbelievably intimate portrait of The Beatles, showing how, with their backs against the wall, they could still rely on their friendship, good humor, and creative genius. While plans derail and relationships are put to the test, some of the world’s most iconic songs are composed and performed. The docuseries features – for the first time in its entirety – The Beatles’ last live performance as a group, the unforgettable rooftop concert on London’s Savile Row, as well as other songs and classic compositions featured on the band’s final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.
It took Jackson four years to edit the material. Wikipedia adds, “It was created with cooperation from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon (Yoko Ono) and George Harrison (Olivia Harrison), as well as music supervisor Giles Martin (son of George Martin and a regular producer of Beatles projects since 2006). In a news release, McCartney said: “I am really happy that Peter has delved into our archives to make a film that shows the truth about the Beatles recording together”, while Starr echoed: “There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the Let It Be film that came out [in 1970]. There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that.”
I found three short clips from the series on YouTube, which, since I’m a big Beatles fans, really whets my appetite to see the series. The first one seems to be when George Harrison introduces the song “I Me Mine” to the group:
Rehearsal of “Something in the Way She Moves”. And yes, Yoko is sitting there, and Linda McCartney is taking photos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the band rehearse, but it’s lovely.
Rehearsal of “Don’t Let Me Down” with Billy Preston on the keyboard.
If anybody’s seen it, please report below.
It’s no secret that I think the Beatles are by far the best rock group that ever was, and ever will be. They could write everything from love songs to hard rockers, and nearly all of it was superb. What rock song today is the equal of “A Day in the Life”, or “In My Life”, or “Blackbird”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever”, not to mention “Yesterday”. (Well, there’s “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but I prefer to think of them as mutations.)
It’s unimaginable to me that such talent could come together more than once, and that, combined with the demise of the genre, means that this is the apogee of rock music.
I posted this live performance of “Woodstock” about 10½ years ago (been a long time here, eh?), but I saw it again on those infernal YouTube “suggestions” on the right. And once again I was mesmerized by the quality of Joni Mitchell’s artistry. She wins the trifecta of rock/folk musicianship: superb at singing, playing an instrument, and writing songs—something that only artists like Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, or James Taylor can do.
This version is from 1970, and shows how much music can be made with a voice, a piano, and a great tune. Joni introduces the song with a story about how she didn’t get to go to Woodstock, and so wrote the song after watching the show on television. You can read more at the Wikipedia link above.
Crosby, Still, Nash & Young also performed an album version in 1970 that rocks much harder than Joni’s, and truly I can’t say which I like better. This really is “apples and oranges.”
Backstory of the CSN&Y version (from Wikipedia):
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had learned the song from Mitchell herself, who was Nash’s girlfriend at the time, but the band’s version introduced major changes in tone. Jimi Hendrix was involved early in the song’s development, and a recording taped on 30 September 1969, half a year before the album came out, with Hendrix playing bass and overdubbing guitar was released in 2018 on the album Both Sides of the Sky. Sound engineer Eddie Kramer stated that with Jimi “… helping the song along, it sounds like Crosby, Stills & Hendrix”. The final version had Stephen Stills singing a slightly rearranged version of Mitchell’s lyrics which put the line, “we are billion year old carbon” — which only appeared in her final chorus — into each of the first three choruses. Then that line was replaced with “we are caught in the devil’s bargain” in the last chorus, which was also in Mitchell’s final chorus.
“Woodstock” was one of the few Déjà Vu tracks where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all performed their parts in the same session. Later the original lead vocal by Stephen Stills was partly replaced with a later vocal recorded by Stills, who recalled: “I replaced one and a half verses that were excruciatingly out of tune.” Neil Young disagreed, saying that “the track was magic. Then later on [Crosby, Stills & Nash] were in the studio nitpicking [with the result that] Stephen erased the vocal and put another one on that wasn’t nearly as good.
Well, call me stupid, but I thought that Eric Clapton’s musical genius would extend into other areas, too. Thus I was gobsmacked when he became an ardent antivaxer, letting me down three times by opposing antivaccination restrictions, opposing the shot itself (though he got two AstraZeneca jabs), and releasing two anti-vax songs, “This Has Gotta Stop” and “Stand and Deliver,” the latter with Van Morrison.
Now, as Rolling Stone reports (click on screenshot below), Clapton is funding a band, Jam for Freedom. whose sole purpose appears to be to oppose vaccination:
Eric Clapton not only donated more than $1,300 to a GoFundMe posted by a vaccine skeptical music group, but he also lent the “pro-medical choice” band his family’s personal Transporter van to use for touring around the country, Rolling Stone reports. A musician for the group Jam for Freedom, known for songs with lyrics like, “You can stick your poison vaccine up your arse,” told the magazine that when he saw the donation he thought he was being tricked, until he received a text from the 76-year-old singer-songwriter himself. “It was something complimentary, along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s Eric—great work you’re doing,’” McLaughlin said. Though he declined to say how much, McLaughlin also told the magazine that Clapton gave them more money to buy a new van and said he might play with the group in the future.
Clapton apparently is becoming (or always was, but kept it quiet) a conservative, and maybe even a racist. There were those comments at a concert in 1976, which I didn’t know about until they surfaced recently. The magazine reports those, too:
In the summer of 1976, Dave Wakeling thought he knew Clapton, too. Wakeling, who’d go on to found the English Beat, one of the U.K.’s pioneering ska bands, was 20 that year, and such a big Clapton fan that he’d once hitchhiked from his Birmingham home to London to see Clapton’s band Blind Faith in Hyde Park.
But when he saw Clapton at the Odeon theater in Birmingham in August 1976, Wakeling was gob-smacked. A clearly inebriated Clapton, who unlike most of his rock brethren hadn’t weighed in on topics like the Vietnam War, began grousing about immigration. The concert was neither filmed nor recorded, but based on published accounts at the time (and Wakeling’s recollection), Clapton began making vile, racist comments from the stage. In remarks he has never denied, he talked about how the influx of immigrants in the U.K. would result in the country “being a colony within 10 years.” He also went on an extended jag about how “foreigners” should leave Great Britain: “Get the wogs out . . . get the coons out.” (Wog, shorthand for golliwog, was a slur against dark-skinned nonwhites.)
“As it went on, it was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Wakeling recalls. “And then it became obvious that it wasn’t. . . . It started to form a sort of murmur throughout the crowd. He kept talking, and the murmurings started to get louder: ‘What did he fucking say again?’ . . . We all got into the foyer after the concert, and it was as loud as the concert: ‘What is he fucking doing? What a cunt!’ ”
When Clapton voiced support onstage for the conservative British flamethrower and fascist Enoch Powell, a prominent anti-immigration politician who had given his polarizing “rivers of blood” speech on the topic in Birmingham in 1968, Wakeling was particularly offended. Thanks to white and black workers toiling together in its factories, Wakeling had sensed that Birmingham had become more integrated in recent years.
Make this breaking my heart for the fifth time.
Clapton later tried to explain away those comments, saying they weren’t really racist, but his excuse isn’t very convincing (read the piece).
Finally, Clapton vowed that he would never play in a venue that required vaccination, and is scheduling his tours according to that dictum:
Clapton recently embarked on a U.S. tour booked in red states despite surging transmission numbers and death rates — and at venues that largely don’t require proof of vaccination. In the process, this Sixties icon, who embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle as much as anyone in his generation, has drawn praise from conservative pundits. In Austin, he posed for backstage photos with Texas’ anti-vax-mandate Gov. Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion and voting rights. The sight of Clapton in backstage photos with the notorious governor amounted to a deal killer for some: “I just deleted all my Clapton songs,” went one comment on Abbott’s Twitter feed, along with, “A Kid Rock type with better guitar skills. Done with him.”
He broke that absurd promise by playing Smoothie King, which, according to its website, is following New Orleans regulations that require all ticketholders 12 and above, as well as staff and participants, to either prove they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine or provide a negative test taken within 72 hours. Moreover, they must wear a mask while not eating or drinking.
Well, fine, though it does show that he isn’t holding to his convictions.
What happened to Clapton? The Rolling Stone piece above is long and detailed, and advances some ideas that you’ll want to read if you’re a Clapton fan.
Here’s some end-of-the week music, and if you hate The Carpenters, or think they’re schlocky, then just pass this post by. (Actually, there are three versions of the song here, two, by Willie Nelson and Leon Russell, below the first one.) I think that would be a shame, because although some of their songs are indeed schlocky, Karen Carpenter had—along with Barbra Streisand—the best female pop voice of our time. (Or so I think: you can argue below.) And the song is a very good one: “A Song For You”: composed and made famous by the late Leon Russell. (It was released in 1970.)
I came across this video as a “suggestion” on the right side when I was browsing YouTube. Because I thought I’d heard every Carpenters song but hadn’t seen this one, I listened to it. And I decided, that of all the versions I’ve heard, including Russell’s own (below), this one’s the best. Why? It’s Karen’s voice, which handles the high and low notes of this song easily. Richard called her low notes “the money notes,” and that’s pretty obvious from this version, recorded live on the Bob Hope Special on October 5, 1972. Can’t you feel your bones vibrate when she hits those low notes? I have to say that Richard’s kind of stiff in this version, but, in contrast, Karen was more expressive than usual.
I’m going to give you two good versions below hers; you might like them better.
Here’s Russell playing his own song at some kind of informal gathering or jam session:
A spare but wonderful version by Willie Nelson, accompanied only by his favorite guitar, “Trigger“:
John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.
McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia. It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.
His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:
The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:
a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.
b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.
c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”
d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:
Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.
Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.
e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.
f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.
Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)
McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:
“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).
But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.
As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.
I found this post on Joni Mitchell’s Facebook page, and it’s an amazing story. What’s more, we can hear one song from the performance, which eventually will be part of a Joni Mitchell retrospective (see post below):
Here’s one song from the performance—from March 19, 1968: