Some of the most interesting album covers are in the classical section.
Collectors are quick to dismiss the Musical Heritage Society LPs (and sometimes pull the sweet inner sleeves before selling them) but they are often really remarkable recordings. Sometimes featuring world class performers — we were surprised to find a Rostropovich recording of —– recently. The spartan aesthetic of MHS jackets leaves little room for artwork, but this release of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique features a pretty sweet image.
Etta James recorded “God’s Song” by Randy Newman year after he released it himself on Sail Away. Her own album of 1973, self-titled and sheafed in plain black, was another attempt by Chess to re-cast her image. Gabriel Mekler was enlisted to produce a heavier sound along the lines of records he’d helmed for Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf, and the song selection turned towards weightier subjects. Etta James also included the title track from Sail Away. and an weary cover of Tracy Nelson’s “Down So Low.”
Her cover of “God’s Song” (incidentally later also recorded by Nelson on her own Homemade Songs) isn’t just the album’s highlight, its the highlight of James’ seventies output. Drawing darkly on the pain in her gospel roots — as a young child she was physically abused by the musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir in Los Angeles’ St. Paul’s Baptist Church, as well as forced to sing by a foster father — her reading of Newman’s satire is almost salaciously snarling.
There are places in the world where speaking satirically in the voice of God would warrant a death sentence. Author Salman Rushdie famously learned this after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the fatwā calling for his assassination still stands in Iran, including a bounty of more than $2.5 million for his murder. It is no coincidence this subject is on our minds as tomorrow is the second anniversary of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo, in which twelve were killed and eleven injured in a retaliation for the satirical weekly’s publication of cartoon images of Muhammad. Rushdie was one of the millions who said “Je Suis Charlie” in response to efforts to suppress speech through fear, telling Time magazine that satire “has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”
Randy Newman likely faced less fear after the release of Sail Away, at least in part because in context “God’s Song” came across as more light-hearted humor. After all, the album opens with an enthusiastic entreaty to Africans to join the Atlantic slave trade (“You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American”) and the second side starts with a suggestion that we “drop the big one and see what happens.” Fortunately, our leaders today would never speak (or tweet) so glibly about something so grim.
On the surface “God’s Song” walks the line of blasphemy by purporting to speak for the Lord, but underneath it forces us here in the first world to confront our own indifference to suffering, as God says in the third verse:
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee From the squalor and the filth and the misery
Newman’s God returns a sardonic refrain of “That’s why I love mankind” each time he is praised for the suffering he has caused. In the same, the world westerners saw in ’72 was praised for its perceived respect for our success. An alternate reading of “God’s Song” shifts the focus of Newman’s satire from the religious to his favorite subject: the emptiness of American affluence.
At the time Newman wrote the song, the western world was confronted with images of famine from Bangladesh and Cambodia, today replaced by suffering in new parts of the world. Consider how much was written about five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy whose image pulled from a Youtube video posted by the Aleppo Media Center, and that in the United States this reporting, as in this NRP story, has been about the purported power of media imagery rather than proposed solutions to the Syrian war.
We’re no different from other victims of Newman’s wit in that we have no solutions to offer. Fortunately no one is looking to a neighborhood record store to solve such an enormous crisis. We really just know a lot of stuff about records, and even that we’re still learning. One thing for sure is that the lack of leadership we see each day in the newspaper leaves us heartbroken and worried, and that we fear the world’s turn towards “tyranny, dishonest and stupidity.”
A little over a year and a half ago Pleasure Horse, Minneapolis’ finest cosmic American country outfit, rustled our hearts with a self-titled EP full of big stories from the open plains. At the time, we posted that the disc’s arrangements were “so consistently inventive its impossible to pick a favorite moment on this album,” and we’ve recommended it to nearly every country fan we know. Along the way we also encouraged everyone who’d listen to catch ’em at a show because Pleasure Horse is one of the best live country acts in the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, those shows are few and far between.
Lost on the Mountain is half the length of that first disc, but doesn’t lose its depth. These five new songs by Tim Evanson frame short stories in catchy riffs and country nuggets. Where the last disc roamed the range from honky tonk to tejano, Mountain is more focused on the classic country-rock sound found in “Poco territory” to great success. Townes van Zandt himself would have been fortunate to be backed by a band which works together this well a little more often. There’s enough familiar sounds from that era, like Celeste Huele’s keys on loan from the brown Band album, to satisfy the outlaw country enthusiast, and enough new ideas — notably guitarist Ben Hahowald’s sharp solos and interplay with bassist Darin Dahlmeier — to expand the range of the cosmic American sound. Best of all, they’re playing a release show for the new disc this weekend so you can hear it all straight from the horse’s mouth.
Pleasure Horse will celebrate the release of their Lost on the Mountain EP with a late show this Saturday night at the Icehouse. Also performing will be Suzie and Fletcher Magellan. Details here.
Winter break is over and bleary-eyed kids all over the City of Minneapolis are rising to alarm clocks and Mom’s admonitions. Soon we’ll all be back in the rhythm of our routine, such as it is, for the remaining 103 days of school.
To celebrate (as this is a very different kind of day when you don’t have to get on that school bus), here is the most unusual educational record we have ever posted here on the Hymies blog, borrowed from a 2014 post.
A remarkable relic from China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Songs of the Little Red Guards is a 10″ album from the late 60s with a similar package to the Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger records American children were putting on their Fisher Price players at the time.
Although sung by a children’s choir, the songs reflect the turmoil of the times, in particular the re-establishment of Mao-ist orthodoxy. Titles such as “Let’s Help Pick Up the Rice Left in the Fields” and “Growing Vegetables for the Armymen’s Families” hint at the legacy of the famine which followed Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Foward while others enforce the Communist Party’s doctrine.
One of the most interesting songs is a tribute to Lei Feng, a relatively unknown soldier whose memoirs were published after his death in 1962 as Lei Feng’s Diary. The book expresses his admiration for Chairman Mao Zedong and the sacrifices he has made for the revolution in the form of selfless acts. The soldier was the subject of a propaganda campaign, and his story became part of the compulsory curriculum in schools.
An iconic poster of Lei Feng
The Red Guard was a student movement which began in 1966 in the middle school attached to Beijing’s Tsinghua University. After receiving recognition from the CCP the group quickly established itself in nearly every school in China. With the Chairman’s personal endorsement at a rally that summer, the group became an essential part of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Party leadership in Beijing struggled to control the Red Guard, which became increasingly divided into factions as it grew, potentially out of control. The campaign against Capitalist or bourgeoisie remnants became violent in places, where assaults on Chinese cultural relics quickly became assaults on individuals. The People’s Liberation Army began suppressing the Red Guard’s most radical elements in 1967, and it was entirely eliminated, often with brutal force, by the summer of 1968. The Chairman, whose enormous personality cult was greatly enhanced by the Red Guard, was alleged to have a tear in his eye when he last spoke to Red Guard leaders.
A Red Guard poster featuring the watchful Chairman
If you’d like to learn more about the Red Guard or start such an organization in your own school, you will likely enjoy Carma Hinton’s 2003 documentary about the Cultural Revolution, Morning Sun. If you still think it’s a good idea, we have a little red book for you.
Tuesday’s post featured the love theme from The Empire Strikes Back and contained the age-old allegation that film composer John Williams is somewhat of a scoundrel when it comes to crediting his inspirations. “Han Solo and the Princess” is undeniably derived from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, first published in 1878 and debuted three years later under unfortunately auspicious circumstances.
Today, the work is considered the capstone of the nineteenth century’s quartet of immortal violin concertos, following in the footsteps of Beethoven (1806), Mendelssohn (1844) and Brahms (1878). It should be noted that the dedicatee of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Joseph Joachim, added to this list as “the richest, the most seductive,” the Violin Concerto in G Minor written by Max Bruch and debuted in 1866. And this addition should call all the more attention to the fact that, in the words of that Sesame Street classic, “one of these is not like the others.” Tchaikovsky the Slav’s entrance into this elite circle of Teutonic titans was a slow and unsteady transition.
All this is apparent in an early and widely disseminated review of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, written by Brahms’ close friend Eduard Hanslick, who suggested the audience had been put through “hell” by the performance. In its most famous line, Hanslick callously claims “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music which stinks to the ear.”
We cannot imagine how Hanslick’s savage words struck the famously thin-skinned composer. The Concerto had already scarred him enough, having been rejected by its original dedicatee in an unfortunate and public rebuff which forced the cancellation of the planned debut in March of 1879. In an interview decades later, Leopold Auer denied he dismissed the Concerto as unplayable, but does admit returning to Tchaikovsky a number of edits which addressed “passages which were not suited to the instrument.” Although Tchaikovsky deeply admired Auer, it was published without his alterations, and debuted by a far less famous violinist, Adolph Brodsky.
Leopold Auer eventually did perform the Violin Concerto, but retained the changes he suggested to Tchaikovsky in 1878. Whether the composer ever saw such a performance is uncertain, but Auer claims in the same 1912 interview that he “received absolution” from Tchaikovsky before his death. By that time, of course, the work had already begun to enjoy its acceptance in the European repertoire in spite of the poor reviews of its debut.
Critics can be shocking biased, as in the case of Hanslick’s claim the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was “odorously Russian.” The UK’s Daily Telegraph, a hundred years later, ran a review of The Empire Strikes Back by a critic who admitted he hadn’t even seen the first film. Unsurprisingly, all of the Star Wars series’ substance is lost on Eric Shorter, who found the film “devoid of feeling.” It seems a given he didn’t understand the suffering of Chewbacca, who Shorter describes as a “grotesque animal,” as he watches Han Solo lowered into the carbon freezing chamber. At that moment his anguished cry is expressive in a way that words, and even music, can’t so readily express. For all his might the Wookie is helpless to stop the world around him from going to hell.
Shorter’s disconnect from the film’s characters was not uniquely British. In The New York Times, for instance, Vincent Canby claimed “The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from the bank.” The Shorter review of the film suggests a bias against science fiction in spirit with Hanslick’s hostility to the forward-facing music of his time, which he dismissed as “music of the future” in an twisted paraphrase of Richard Wagner’s 1860 essay. Hanslick wrote a cold review of Lohengrin and never warmed to Wagner’s enormous big-idea productions, which the composer collected under the concept of gesamtkunstwerk.
Wagner’s vision of a “complete work of art” to encompass theater, music and poetry was realized in the epic Ring of Nebelungen operas, the first opera of which just enjoyed a well-received run at the Minnesota Opera last month. Many people have drawn parallels between Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk and modern cinema. This would surely be lost on Hanslick just as was the larger story arc of Star Wars, with its triumph of the individual spirit over technology, misunderstood by Eric Shorter. At the time of their dismissive reviews, both critics were themselves relics, fast becoming left behind.
The acceptance of Tchaikovsky into the western canon is still controversial at times, as we touched on here early this year when composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away. There remains a perception of Tchaikovsky as an outsider, music for the masses neither European nor Slavic, just as there remains a perception of Star Wars as popcorn-peddling fare without substance.
The Violin Concerto has been widely recorded by many of the modern virtuosos, including very different interpretations by Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler recorded in the 1930s. We recently came across this excellent recording featuring Uto Ughi, who is still a popular conductor in his native Italy, where he is known for his efforts to encourage more people to discover classical music.
Actress and author Carrie Fisher will certainly be called “Hollywood royalty” in her obituaries over the next few days, as she was the daughter of singer Eddie Fischer and actress Debbie Reynolds. She will always be Princess Leia to those of us who grew up on stories from “A long time ago and a galaxy far, far away…”