Yesterday’s lovely flurries couldn’t have come at a better time, as far as we’re concerned. The snow on the ground is just what we needed to put ourselves in the Thanksgiving mood. Your friendly neighborhood record shop will, of course, be closed tomorrow (one of just three such days a year) but open again on Friday with a whole variety of special releases new for the occasion.
“Snowfall” is one of our favorite songs to hear around this time of the year. The 1941 hit by Claude Thornhill and his Orchestra had been their theme song.
Thornhill, who left his enormously lucrative gig to support the war effort the following year, was an enormously influential, if often overlooked, figure in the history of jazz. In a post earlier this year we featured his role in the evolution of cool jazz (here), but didn’t really write about his early career.
He played in the orchestras of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller (whose debut disc featured Thornhill on piano) before forming his own band. He also wrote and arranged for Maxine Sullivan and Billie Holiday.
He will always be associated with “Snowfall,” which is a perfect song for an evening like last night.
We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving full of family and friends and maybe some favorite music. We’ll see you on Friday!
We spent a fair amount of time last week cleaning and filing this gigantic collection of albums, which is why there were so few posts here on the Hymies blog. There’s an awesome variety in the collection, which was stock from a record store that had closed ages ago, with the albums apparently buried in the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark until they were re-discovered. Lots of favorites, lots of oddballs, lots of sealed albums, and — as with any collection of records from the 70s, lots of K-Tel albums.
In one of the boxes we found this catalog from K-Tel Records, the ubiquitous Minnesota-based compilation label. We’ve always had a soft spot for these, and several years ago we featured some of our favorites (here), which includes some of the records in this catalog.
This catalog comes with a K-Tel “preferred customer bonus dollar,” as well as a money-back guarantee. Who on earth would return a copy of Believe in Music or Super Bad?!
We suppose there are some K-Tel collections one might return, like World of Strauss and 25 Polka Greats, but even these show up pretty reliably all these years later so somebody enjoyed them.
And it turns out 25 Polka Greats is a lot of fun! The albums in this catalog are only a small sample of the total K-Tel discography, which would probably take a long time to collect. And now you know that if you’re disappointed, all you have to do is mail the album back to Minnetonka for full credit or exchange.
A ton of new and used records have come through the shop lately. Some have been things we never thought we’d see and some are new releases we’ve been looking forward to hearing — Irene’s response to it all is “Hmm… when is dinner?”
We’ve posted in the past about the theory some anthropologists have that music was our first form of artistic expression. In this way human language evolved from primitive songs. This is all of interest to us because it suggests the reason we establish such deep, often non-verbal responses to music.
At the same time, our connection to our primitive roots is tenuous at best. In many cases, the future of remaining primitive societies around the globe hang on a slender thread. Some are counting their remaining generations, an alarming reality made clear in National Geographic‘s November 2015 issue through a focus on climate change. One particularly moving piece focused on the island nation of Kiribati, whose capital is likely to be uninhabitable by the end of the century. The I-Kiribati people are hardly primitive and could be relocated to Australia, New Guinea or the Phillippines, but at what cost to their culture?
Many other island societies, as well as those in places like Australia’s outback or the Orinoco River valley in South America, are likewise facing the future disappearance of their cultures. Consider that there are an about 6,000 spoken languages in the world, and UNESCO estimates that half of them will be dead by the year 2100.
This is all made ominously clear in the liner notes to this 1973 album produced by the British Broadcasting Company for Horizon. Program director Joseph Prostakoff writes:
Primitive man’s music provides us with an extraordinary window into his culture — all the more so because it is an integral part of every aspect of his life. This record presents more than fifty examples of exotic chants and instruments, as well as songs of work, war, love, and celebration. All were recorded on site in remote corners of the world and are brought together here in a unique collection — before the music fades forever.
The notes provide just a little bit of information for each of the forty-four tracks, which were recorded on location throughout the world. For instance, this first song is an Ainu folk song called Chkap Upopo (“Singing Birds”) and we are informed that “the sounds of birds and insects are interpreted as gods’ oracles about the weather, crops, and fortunes of the tribe.” The notes also tell us the Ainus are an aboriginal Caucasian tribe inhabiting the northernmost of the Japanese islands, but they do not mention their language is all but lost. The Endangered Language Project estimates there are only two native speakers of Ainu remaining.
This second song is performed by two Bambuti tribesmen, and they accompany themselves on an instrument identified in the notes as the lukembe. Fans of spiritual jazz artists such as Pharaoh Sanders or Chicago’s Kahil El’Zabar likely know this instrument as the African thumb piano. It is comprised of metal strips mounted to a sounding board. To play it one depresses and releases the ends of the strips, sort of like a a piano key.
The Bambuti are a largely isolated pygmy people who live in the Congo region of Africa. This recording was made in the Ituri forest.
This hauntingly beautiful recording was made at the King’s palace at Nukualofa, the capital of the Tonga Islands. From the liner notes: “The origin of the nose flute is associated with the primitive belief that nose breath contains the soul and had, therefore, more magical power than mouth breath.” This is another instrument which may be familiar to jazz fans, as it was often employed by Rahsaan Roland Kirk during his performances.
The sea level around Tonga has risen at about twice the global average since 1993, carving about 40 meters off the island, according to this Radio Australia program. A Tongan representative to the UN’s 2011 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, sums up the situation faced by nations such as his, who are on the “frontline” of climate change but are essentially powerless.
Those living perilously close to sea level such as those on the Island of Tonga are not the only people whose way of life has already begun to be irreversibly altered by climate change. The fishing and hunting seasons for Inuit people are becoming shorter each year. As the water warms the fish stay deeper below the surface, and residents of the subarctic are seeing flora and fauna they have never seen before.
There are a number of languages in the Inuit family, but as the general culture is endangered so is the language. In Alaska, for instance, only about one quarter of the `13,000 Inupiat people speak the language, and most of them are over the age of forty (these are also divided into several dialects). The song on The Music of Primitive Man was recorded in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where Inuktitut is recognized as an official language. There is even a written form of Inuktitut, called Canadian Aboriginal syllabics.
This track contains two recordings. The first is a solo on the musical bow, which Prostakoff points out in the notes is maybe the earliest stringed instrument. The second recording is a Chicha song, sung by a group of women. Chicha is a fermented drink consumed during seasonal celebration. The third song is a lullaby.
The Motilon Indians live in the Catatumbo River basin, in Columbia and Venezuela. They speak a language called Barí, which is part of a larger group of indigenous languages called Chibchan.
French ethnologist Robert Jaulin wrote an influential book on the Motilon people in 1970 called White Peace: An Introduction to Ethnocide. In it he differentiates between genocide as the killing of a people and ethnocide as the killing of a culture. Jaulin went through a series of initiation rites to become part of the Motilon community, and witnessed firsthand the slow erasure of their culture through the removal of children (to be raised apart from their families), forced labor and compulsory abandonment of traditional customs. And also, of course, the introduction of religious propaganda. Jaulin’s observations are hardly limited to the Catatumbo River basin, as is clear from the future of the other societies featured on this album.
As we wrote earlier, there are forty-four tracks on this album, and in reading about each we could find a similar story. Presently, the transition team put in place by our President Elect implies that we are likely to fulfill his campaign promise to re-visit our treaties and agreements with other nations. Tragically, this may include last year’s historic Paris Agreement, which only went into effect earlier this month. Even with a very serious response to climate change, it seems unlikely that many of the cultures featured on The Music of Primitive Man are likely to survive this century.
Leon Russell, the wild-haired hillbilly pianist whose work with the legendary Wrecking Crew studio team propelled him to a solo career in which he followed his muse for decades, passed away yesterday at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was seventy-four years old and recovering from a recent surgery.
Russell was an irrepressibly rhythmic and swinging pianist, and in the sixties lent his skills to a wide variety of charting hits as a session musician. You’ll hear him on Glen Campbell’s cover of “Gentle on my Mind” and hits by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“This Diamond Ring,” “Everybody Loves a Clown”) as well as smaller hits by an astounding range of artists: Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Bob Dylan (whose “Watching the River Flow, “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” were all produced by Russell), Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few.
In his extraordinary solo career Russell recorded everything from psychedelic rock to cajun-infused swamp rock, bluegrass and straight honky tonk. His 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back is about as close to a perfect Americana album as you’re ever going to find.
And once again, there’s a song we found suited to the times. Russell co-wrote and recorded “Stranger in a Strange Land” on his third album, which was released two years earlier. Alternately a plea for peace and a song of despair, Russell borrows from Robert Heinlein’s science fiction masterpiece and offers subtle hints of our need for a Savior.
Russell’s “Song for You” might serve as a more suitable epitaph. Elton John has called it an American classic. John recorded a record with Russell, who had once hired him as an opening act, in 2010 which led to a resurgence in his career. John always credited Russell for helping launch his own career, and was among the first to mourn his passing.
If you’re friends with a lot of record collectors, your Facebook feed has likely been flooded with Leonard Cohen lyrics this week. The Canadian born novelist and poet who became a reluctant pop star after the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967 passed away earlier this week at the age of eighty-two. Hardly prolific (he only released fourteen albums, the most recent of which hit record stores just last month) and hardly commercial, he remains for many a favorite songwriter.
Cohen may be more known for covers of his songs — in fact, it was Judy Collins’ cover of “Suzanne” which first attracted the legend-making producer John Hammond to Cohen, who was thirty-three at the time he recorded that debut record. One of Cohen’s most famous compositions, “Hallelujah,” comes from a 1984 album which surprises listeners who discovered the song through the achingly beautiful Jeff Buckley recording made ten years later. On Various Positions, Cohen’s poetic lyrics are lost beneath poor production, excessive reverb and ill-places synthesizers, but nonetheless the song has become a widely-recorded modern standard.
Our favorite Leonard Cohen song is not so often performed as “Suzanne” or “Hallelujah,” but oddly fitting for the atmosphere of our country at this time, as it was when it first appeared on New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974. It is called “There is a War.”