Category Archives: Music

“We’re taking names …”

Here’s The Hill:

New U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Friday warned the international governing body’s members against crossing the U.S.

“There is a new U.S.-U.N.,” she said during her first speech at U.N. headquarters. “We talked to the staff yesterday and you are gonna see a change in the way we do business.”

“Our goal, with the [Trump] administration, is to show value at the U.N.,” added Haley, the former GOP governor of South Carolina. “The way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure that our allies have our back as well.

“For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names.”

To those of a certain age, a certain political “bent”, a certain cultural awareness, that takes us back — all the way to 1962.

There it was:

Oh we’re meeting at the courthouse at eight o’clock tonight:
You just come in the door and take the first turn to the right.
Be careful when you get there, we’d hate to be bereft,
But we’re taking down the names of everybody turning left.

Oh we’re the John Birch Society, the John Birch Society—
Here to save our country from a communistic plot!
Join the John Birch Society, help us fill the ranks:
To get this movement started, we need lots of tools and cranks.

What goes around, comes around. 

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Filed under folk music, United States, US politics


Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):

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Filed under folk music, History, Johnny Cash, Literature, Music, Oxford English Dictionary, railways, reading, United States

Here’s to you, Robert Zimmerman

Two neat comments—

Heading out on Highway 61:


Source: New Yorker morning cartoon, by David Sipress.

And here’s a couple who’ve done rather well in life:


Source: Tweet by Miche Doherty @miche, “Irish actor with geekish tendencies. Citizen of the world.”

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Filed under folk music, Music, United States, US Elections

Persistent mondegreen

I had to check on the term’s origin. Sylvia Wright in Harper’s, November 1954, gets the credit (this by courtesy of the OED):

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

If you can’t get past the pay-wall for that, you’ll find it’s also related — very wittily — by  in a back-copy of the New Yorker. She notes that “mondegreen” is itself a recursive mondegreen.

Her definition continues:

Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance. That was a car alarm. That’s a bird. Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way. What’s less immediately clear is why, precisely, that happens.

The simplest cases occur when we just mishear something: it’s noisy, and we lack the visual cues to help us out (this can happen on the phone, on the radio, across cubicles—basically anytime we can’t see the mouth of the speaker). One of the reasons we often mishear song lyrics is that there’s a lot of noise to get through, and we usually can’t see the musicians’ faces. Other times, the misperceptions come from the nature of the speech itself, for example when someone speaks in an unfamiliar accent or when the usual structure of stresses and inflections changes, as it does in a poem or a song. What should be clear becomes ambiguous, and our brain must do its best to resolve the ambiguity.

I find that good stuff. My attempt would be a mondegreen is the acoustic equivalent of the way we bewilder ourselves with optical illusions:


The difference, of course, is that such images are deliberate, whereas the true, the blushful mondegreen is self-inflicted and unwitting embarrassment.

What prompted this today was — as so often — iTunes in the background. And I found myself grunting along and, five years later, doing it again.

My Irish Leaving Certificate French, barest Pass, and already a couple of years ossified, only ever parsed that lyric from AM radio or off the Dansette. So, back in days of starry-eyed romanticism, I sang along with Françoise Madeleine Hardy:

 Tous les garcons et les filles d’ Montmartre …

Only later (as a previous blog-post confessed), aided by modern technology and now a decent pair of AKGs, does the full truth re-emerge:

Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age
Se promenent dans la rue deux par deux.
Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age
Savent bien ce que c’est d’etre heureux,
Et les yeux dans les yeux,
Et la main dans la main —
Ils s’en vont amoureux.

What has got me —

(in a way that Salvador Dalí would understand, as a persistence of mistaken memory)


— is I’m still mumbling along with the mondegreen.

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The world re-arranged (slightly)

Yesterday I had an appointment with the local GP (and would be seen, promptly, by a very personable young lady doctor). As I waited,  I was continuing re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a text which requires a considerable degree of focus.

In the background there was a radio, tuned to BBC Radio 2, burbling MOR pop, which I could barely hear. Somehow my attention drifted from Stephenson to the radio. It took a moment to identify the track:

I can’t say I ever paid much attention to Terry Parsons, a.k.a. Matt Munro. Probably one of the few occasions he came to my 51D0MjaOdCLattention was as “Fred Flange” on Songs for Swingin’ Sellars. For some reason — probably because we were fans of The Goon Show (largely because we thought we spotted the dirty jokes smuggled past the BBC editorial blue pencil) — the LP was declared kosher among jazzers, as we were.

Yet this particular song resonated for me. As I recall, it appeared around 1970 — by which time I was well over the adolescent (and subsequent) music addiction.

The lyrics (apparently by Tim Harris) involve a list of Harris’s ex-girlfriends — hence Shirley Wood, Margaret Baty/Beatty and Annie Harris.

My guess: had the song appeared a decade earlier (at the height of the CND marching epidemic) it would have done a heck of a lot better.

Still: it has survived. It is as slick as anything that the London production line was churning out at that time. The sentiments aren’t too dusty, either.

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Filed under Britain, British Left, Music

It begins to make sense …

Rocket 88

At first sight I was going ape at the New Yorker piece:


To [one] way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing. No one contributed more to the job than Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, and the man who discovered Elvis Presley.

I blanched at the notion that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) … like Chuck Berry. Back to the Future this ain’t.

Berry’s recording comes from 1958, but it was derivative. He lifted the intro from Louis Jordan and 1942, and the outline for the guitar break from T-Bone Walker and 1950. Even then, those were probably not far distant from “race records” clichés. None of which detracts from the definitive Berry version.

52032b2509e5cf01aadf57f26a666847Then Menand’s next eighteen-penn’orth of paragraphs amounts to a review of Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll, which has been getting notices across the American press. His take is that Guralnick is at-least-a-trifle hagiographical. The excuse given is that:

Guralnick understands his subject, and, after a while, you pick up on the subtext. Phillips had a genuine feel for a kind of music that was, in a Southern context, slightly asymmetrical to his own race and class. He liked the blues, and his liking of the blues was bound up with progressive views on race relations. He really did believe that by recording B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf—and many other African-American musicians, most of them now largely forgotten—he was doing God’s work. He respected his musicians as artists and as people; he identified with their travails; and he threw himself into the job of getting their music out.

My Big Bastard hard-drive, from which assorted puny iPods are serially refreshed, is one proof that B. B. King and Howlin’ Wolf are not now largely forgotten. I cannot be alone in such retrospection.

Only in the latter part of his essay does Menand start to make more sense:

Rock and roll is usually explained as rhythm-and-blues music—that is, music performed by black artists for black listeners—repurposed by mostly white artists for a mostly white audience. How do we know this? Because that’s the way the industry trade magazine Billboard represented it.

Billboard started charting songs in 1940. By 1949, it was publishing charts in three categories: pop, country-and-Western, and (a new term, replacing “race music”) rhythm and blues. Every week, in each category, there were lists of the songs most frequently sold in record shops, most frequently requested in jukeboxes, and most frequently played by disk jockeys. (These rankings were all relative; actual sales figures were proprietary.)

The charting system was predicated on a segregated market. How did Billboardknow when a song was a rhythm-and-blues hit, and not a pop hit? Because its sales were reported by stores that catered to an African-American clientele, its on-air plays were reported by radio stations that programmed for African-American listeners, and its jukebox requests were made in venues with African-American customers. Black artists could have pop hits. The Ink Spots, a black quartet, had fourteen songs in the Top Five on the pop chart between 1939 and 1947. That was because their songs were marketed to whites.

And that is how I’ve been accounting for it, all these years.

Then Menand undermines that basic narrative. He argues that several industry developments subvert this version:

  • the growth of local radio stations as the FCC broke up the CBS, NBC and Mutual cartels;
  • this was accompanied by the proliferation of juke-boxes;
  • small labels intruding into the mass-market, particularly as the big labels withdrew from racially-segregated marketing;
  • the post-war boom putting buying power into the pockets of a younger market [that’s my gloss, by the way], who were more likely to cross-over the racial divide. “Race music” became R&B and also became acceptable to the white teenager with a portable record player and a thirst for excitement.

Then (after a nod at Rocket 88) he throws in the spit-ball:

Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?

The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.

On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent.

We’re onto the home straight, it seems. Except again Menand swerves:

0189562572… the best conclusion seems to be the one reached by the sociologist Philip Ennis in his valuable analysis of popular music, The Seventh Stream (1992). “Did the music industry force-feed teenagers into the acceptance of rock and roll?” Ennis asked. “To the contrary, it was almost the reverse.” White listeners began consuming a style of music that had not been manufactured for or marketed to them. The d.j.s and the record companies were only scrambling to meet the demand. That demand seems to have sprung up everywhere—in Cleveland and Memphis, in Los Angeles and New York—and all at once. If advertising and promotion didn’t bring about this phenomenon, what did?

It’s tempting to interpret it as a generational rebellion against a buttoned-up, conservative domestic culture, but this is almost certainly a retrospective reading, created by looking at the period through the lens of the nineteen-sixties. Folk songs had a message, and some sixties rock songs had a message. Rock and roll did not have a message, unless it was: “Let’s party (and if you can’t find a partner, use a wooden chair).” Or maybe, at its most polemical, “Roll over, Beethoven.” But it was music intended for young people, and this was the distinctive thing.

That’s not all. There needs to be the delivery system, which (as I’ve already adduced) was:

 The 45-r.p.m. record—the single—was developed by RCA and marketed in 1949. Soon, RCA introduced a cheap plastic record player, which played only 45s and sold for twelve ninety-five. This meant that teen-agers could play “their” music out of their parents’ hearing. They did not have to listen in the living room on the family phonograph.

Menand then concertinas technological development: the transistor radio was not as rapidly adopted as he implies — we would be more towards the end of the ’50s or early ’60s for that. But we were still tied to the main suppliers: and in Britain they were few and far between (unless you had a mate with eclectic tastes and access to those expensive — and fragile, especially on a Dansette — LPs). As for the “pirate” radio stations, and before them Radio Luxembourg (208 metres, medium wave), once night fell, the sound quality was liable to be execrable.

More liberating, especially in the European market (and Menand misses this), was the compact cassette: but that was a different Philips. And with the cassette recorder, preferably plugged into the AUX socket on the best radio in the house, everyone became his (or, less often, her) own DJ.

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Great misunderstandings of our time

Courtesy of The New Yorker, I find myself asked:

Is this the dirtiest song of the Sixties?

The legend of the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” has been told almost as many times as the song itself has been covered. (There’s no accurate count for either, but both must number in the thousands.) First released in May of 1963, and then re-released that October, the Kingsmen’s version climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart. The song’s popularity among a new generation of rock-and-roll teen-agers brought it to the attention of some concerned citizens. One of them, the father of a teen-age girl, wrote to Robert Kennedy, who was then the Attorney General, to complain about the song’s possible obscenity, prompting an F.B.I. investigation. “This land of ours is headed for an extreme state of moral degradation,” the incensed parent wrote to Kennedy. (Remember this the next time someone tries reminiscing to you about the good old days before pop music was full of sex and vulgarities.)

Allow me to disgust you:

It must be a contender: The Stone’s C*cksucker Blues is 1970, and so can’t qualify.

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