Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Mix 2009

For those of you on the mix cd mailing list, this was marked as "Xmas 2009." I tried to be somewhat thematic in my organization, beginning with spoken word, then going into song's about Santa, songs about reindeer and other assorted Christmas animals, then a blending of Christmas songs, and then Christmas songs with a darker edge to them, before wiping all of that clean with the sheer joy of Mabel Mafuya. Here is a track by track break down. For the rest of you out there, some of the tracks came from Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas Episode, while the rest came from my personal collection of Christmas records. Most of them you can find on iTunes or other services to make your own copy.

1. Justin Wilson – Cajun Night Before Christmas

Justin Wilson was an icon of Cajun living during the 1970s. During that time he tried his hand at just about everything, penning cookbooks and recording comedy albums. He also recorded this, his cajunified version of the Night Before Christmas.

2. Bob Seger & the Last Heard – Sock It To Me Santa

This comes from early in Seger’s career, long before the Silver Bullet Band. When Seger started, he was on the Cameo-Parkway label alongside the likes of ? and the Mysterians. The label pushed its artists to make Christmas singles and Seger recorded this and “Little Drummer Boy.” “Sock It To Me Santa” with its rollicking beat and lyrics fit for a James Brown song are a fine embodiment of Seger’s Detroit sound.

3. Bob Rivers – I Am Santa Claus

Bob Rivers is a radio dj out of Seattle who is known for his love of Christmas. He has put out several Christmas albums that rewrite the history of rock into Christmas songs or take traditional Christmas songs and spin them on their head. This song may be his best. According to Rivers, its not milk Santa wants but beer.

4. Sufjan Stevens – Get Behind Me, Santa!

Between 2001 and 2005, Sufjan Stevens recorded annual Christmas EPs for close friends and his biggest fans. In 2006 these, along with a new EP for 2006, were collected into a deluxe box set. Each EP contains a few traditional songs, often sacred carols, and then a couple new Stevens compositions to round things out. Stevens was certainly thinking of putting a copy of this in Jack White’s stocking when he recorded it in 2006.

5. The Enchanters – Mambo Santa Mambo

The 1950s R&B outfit the Enchanters are singing about Santa doing the mambo here. The fifties stereotype that pop music is for the uneducated is supported here as the Enchanters imply that the mambo is from Mexico, when it is really Cuban. They can’t use the excuse that they were trying to avoid a hearing before HUAC since this was recorded before Castro came to power.

6. Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa

Bob Dylan stole this madcap polka arrangement from Brave Combo, whose version he played on his radio show. The only real difference between the versions occurs when Dylan calls out the names of the reindeer and throws in the names of some presidents. I guess he just couldn’t resist when he realized how well Vixen rhymes with Nixon. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos guests on speed accordion. If you were going to buy one Christmas album this year, I would suggest Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart, but only because Dylan is donating his royalties to Feeding America, Crisis UK or the World Food Programme, depending on which territory you buy the album from. Aso, check out the quite strange video on YouTube. In it, Dylan is throwing a rent party, stumbling around in a long blonde wig, and making inane hand motions. Eventually, a fight breaks out and director Nash Edgerton gets thrown out of a window to Bob and Santa’s head-shaking disapproval.

7. Chuck Berry – Run Rudolph Run

With lines like “Rudolph, you know you’re the mastermind,” Berry took the teen poetry he’d created in songs like “School Days” and applied it to Christmas with a surprisingly high degree of success.

8. Lou Monty – Dominic, the Italian Christmas Donkey

The neighing on this song seems like some sort of ethnic stereotype that should make me feel horribly ashamed for listening to it, but there is something strangely intriguing about it at the same time. When I hear this, I imagine the wedding dance in the Godfather, if it had happened on Christmas.

9. Alton Ellis & the Lipsticks – Merry Merry Christmas

Rockin’ steady from Jamaica.

10. Leadbelly – Christmas Is A-Comin’

From the murderer’s best-selling album, Leadbelly Sings For Children!

11. James Brown – Soulful Christmas

James Brown has recorded dozens of Christmas songs, both as part of holiday album and as non-album holiday singles. This jam is one of my favorites, and I think that is at least partially due to it being a shameless advertisement for Brown himself. Near the end of the song, Brown tells the listener because they buy his records and see his shows, and that he’ll tell you Merry Christmas when you come to see his show. He panders his product like none other. There’s also Brown’s inane pronunciation, which makes it sound as though he sings “Merry Christmas! Have a new year. I love you! Have good chair!”

12. The Beatles – Christmas Time Is Hear Again

Each year, the Beatles would record a holiday record that would be sent out on 45 to members of their fan club. By all accounts, this is the best of the Beatles’ holiday records. It is cut from the same cloth as “Hello Goodbye.”

13. Run DMC – Christmas in Hollis

This cut from rap’s golden age always inspires wonderment at just what makes collard greens so delicious.

14. Bobby “Boris” Pickett – Monster’s Holiday

Apparently Bobby Pickett’s record company decided to cash in as much as possible on the success of “Monster Mash,” prompting them to release this sequel just two months later.

15. Patsy Raye – Beatnik’s Wish

Patsy Raye sounds like one way-out happening chick on this doozy of a tune. The drumming is radical, mirroring Raye’s pulse as she is “wiggin’” for a man. The one thing that makes me question this song’s beatnik authenticity….. since when do the Freshman Four swing?

16. Kay Martin & Her Bodyguards – I Want A Casting Couch For Christmas

This is the Christmas theme for pin-up models everywhere. It is a lot of kitschy fun, but it is also a bit problematic. This song appears to assert women’s sexual agency, and their ability to use that sexuality as a means to achieve economic agency. The problem with this approach is that in the porn industry the means of production are owned by males, as the song playfully illustrates. All of the managers and agents are men. There are also two troubling verses. The first is the one about the manager who believes women should “be obscene and not heard.” At first glance, this disrupts the traditional misogyny inherent in the phrase “women should be seen and not heard,” but women are still “not heard” in this song, and by being obscene, though they may be censored, the desire for them to “be seen” will increase, so rather than disrupting the misogyny this phrase enhances it by further objectifying women. The other troubling verse is about the agent whose office “even ha[s] a movie script projected on the ceiling.” The problem here is that, in order for the speaker to know this, she would have had to have been on the bottom, which is where women are really kept by this kind of song. The numerous double-entendres are certainly fun, but in many ways this song has been dated by its sexist views of women. This song is merely product, and product created for men at the time. Though it appears on the surface that it could be reclaimed, efforts to do so fall short. Also, what’s going on at the end of the song, when she offers to “show a Jew some jitsu?” Rather than coming across as a Kill Bill move, it just serves to stereotype Jews as wealthy misers.

17. Gayla Peevy – I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas

I’m with ya, Gayla. I wouldn’t mind a chimpanzee either, come to think of it, though the SPCA may have other ideas.

18. Ray Stevens – Santa Claus Is Watching You

Nothing is wilder than hearing about Clyde the camel and Rudolph breaking his hip in a twist-contest. This song perfectly embodies the American Graffiti ethic, with Ray Stevens sounding more like Wolfman Jack than the Wolfman himself.

19. Willie Nelson – Little Dealer Boy

Willie Nelson recorded this for Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special, which also featured the likes of Elvis Costello and Toby Keith. It is a great song, especially the slant rhyme of “herb” and “myrrh,” but would have been even better without Colbert’s annoying attempt at providing background vocals. A music video can be seen on YouTube featuring Willie Nelson dressed up as a wise man from the east.

20. Ry Cooder – Christmas In Southgate

This sounds like a scene straight out of Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory, but instead it came from My Name Is Buddy, Ry Cooder’s conflation of “Wind In the Willows” and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath set during the second Bush administration. What it does recall is Guthrie’s vision of Christ as a socialist, outlaw martyr in “Jesus Christ.”

21. Prince – Another Lonely Christmas

Since Prince couldn’t do any wrong in 1984, he decided to release this as a b-side to one of the singles from Purple Rain. The song painfully recalls the death of a dear lover. “I drink banana daquiris ‘til I’m blind” is Prince’s equivalent of Ezra Pound’s “the monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead” – a perfect image of infinite sadness, and a line too silly to carry any pathos if it were sung by anyone else.

22. Stevie Wonder – Someday at Christmas

This has the feel of Stevie Wonder’s earlier music, before he discovered funk and fused it with his soul sound. The lyrics, however, are all peak period Wonder and wouldn’t have been out of place on Songs in the Key of Life, perhaps released as a double-A-sided single with “Pastime Paradise.”

23. The Staples Singers – Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?

The merry/Mary pun is obvious, but it is still more fun, or at least less cring-inducing, than “put the Christ back in Christmas.” This was recorded during the peak of the Staple Singers’ mainstream popularity in the early 1970s, and Mavis is dominating this classic cut while Pops is throwing in some jammin’ lines too.

24. Bob Dorough & Miles Davis – Blue Xmas

Bob Dorough would later become famous for penning songs like “Conjunction Junction” and “3 is the Magic Number,” but while waiting for Schoolhouse Rock to become a hit he recorded this song with Miles Davis. It followed right on the heels of DavisKind of Blue and the horn lick bears a definite resemblance to “So What.” This is perhaps the best of the anti-consumerist Christmas songs.

25. Thurl Ravenscroft – You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch

From the soundtrack to the 1966 animated favorite.

26. The Sonics – Don’t Believe In Christmas

Rather than cover “Run Rudolph Run,” the Sonics decided to rip off another Chuck Berry song – “Too Much Monkey Business” – and supply it with a new set of lyrics. Theirs is one of the finest legacies in garage rock with great songs like “Psycho” and “Strychnine.”

27. Simon & Garfunel – Silent Night

This song closed out Simon & Garfunkel’s seminal lp, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme. I know I’m in the minority, but I feel it is their strongest album. It is certainly their most diverse, and “Silent Night” is one of the highlights due to the way the song counterpoints the traditional carol with contemporary news reports of the National Guard marching on Dr. King and the growing military presence in Vietnam.

28. Mabel Mafuya – Happy Christmas, Happy New Year

After the seriousness of “Silent Night,” I thought it would be good to end the album on a happy note, and I couldn’t think of any better way to do that than with the earnest joy of South African singer Mabel Mafuya.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Christmas In the Heart" and "Normal as Blueberry Pie": A Double Review

It is a bittersweet feeling when both of your favorite songwriters release covers albums on the same day. Sure, it is great to have another album, but it would be even greater to have another album of original material. This is what happened on October 13, 2009, when Bob Dylan and Nellie McKay simultaneously scheduled the release of new albums, Christmas In the Heart and Normal as Blueberry Pie, respectively. In Dylan's case, it being a covers album was much more tolerable since he had recently released an album of new material, but after release three albums, including two double albums, and an EP in a four year stretch, McKay hadn't released anything since 2007.

Both albums were centered around a theme. For Dylan, this was to be a Christmas extravaganza in order to raise money for charity. For McKay, this was a tribute to Doris Day, mostly in honor of Day's work with animals.

In terms of song selection, I think McKay has the slight advantage if only because the music is less familiar to me. Dylan stuck mostly to classics from the Christmas canon, though he chose ones which seemed to work. When the project was announced, I thought "Silver Bells" would be an okay song for his current voice, and it is. I also assumed he would cover "Here Comes Santa Claus" simply because Gene Autry had written it, and his cover is appropriately Christmasfied country swing. Dylan's three non-canonical choices, "Christmas Blues," "Must Be Santa," and "Christmas Island," are, not surprisingly, among the album's most inspired moments. "Must Be Santa" drives perhaps harder than Brave Combo's. I've always wanted to hear Bob record a polka, and after hearing Brave Combo perform this on his Theme Time Radio Hour, I've wanted this to be the polka he chose to record. "Christmas Blues" is perhaps overpraised by critics, but it does have some nice moments. "Christmas Island," a cover of the Andrews Sisters, is an even better Hawaiian song than Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikimaka," and the Ditty Bops provide even more endearing backing than the Andrews Sisters.

Nellie McKay's album is composed entirely of covers of Doris Day songs, though some, such as "Sentimental Journey," have reputations which expand beyond Day. Coming into the album, I had only a very passing awareness of Day's later work, such as "Wonderful Guy," "Everbody Loves a Lover," "Que Sera, Sera," and "Teacher's Pet." Only one of those songs, "Wonderful Guy," appears on this collection. Because the music was so unfamiliar to me, I have found it harder to get into than I did Christmas In the Heart, which I was immediately taken with. As I've listened to the album time and again, though, I have come to love many of the songs. I can't provide comparisons with many of Day's versions, but McKay, with help of session men like Bob Dorough, gives the songs the best songs the feeling of early jazz, while the rest seem like torch ballads. The jazz, especially when it swings, works best. Songs like "Do Do Do" and "Wonderful Guy" are fun, but it really burns on "Crazy Rhythm" and "Dig It."

When it comes to album packaging, Bob has the total advantage. the album is adorned with four illustrations. The front cover pictures a 19th century Russian sleigh ride. The back cover features a somberly joyous picture of the three wise men traveling on camels. Inside, there is a Vargasesque painting of Bettie Page and a picture of worn-out street musicians in Rome. These conflicting images of Christmas suggest a coexisting of diverse viewpoints of the holiday and asan extension make the album polylithic.

McKay's album has plenty of pictures of her looking delightfully like a 1950s housewife, and then it has a lot of weird quotes. All of the quotes have to do with animal rights and vegetarianism, but some seem a little extreme, such as "You're better off eating a salad in a hummer than a burger in a prius" from Bill Maher. I get the point, but the ills of corporate farming doesn't exactly make Hummers any more palatable. How about a salad in a Prius? Without the whole mindset that led us to a nation where a car like the Hummer was able to achieve popularity, we never would have strayed away from a localized agrieconomy, so in that respect the salad in the hummer is worse. Chief Seattle tells us "the whited too shall pass," and in context he was right to say that, but to pull it out of context, McKay is simply playing to the same problematic essentializing which led to hegemony in the first place. Also, Seattle probably wouldn't be too pleased with "Black Hills of Dakota" which capitalizes on well meaning, but ultimately stereotypical, notions of the noble savage.

Musically, both albums are great. When McKay cooks, she cooks. I would have put fewer ballads and more uptempo songs in the mix, but even the ballads are good, especially an exquisite take on "Sentimental Journey." The few mid-tempo numbers, such as "Mean to Me" and "Wonderful Guy" are also enjoyable. McKay's vocals sound great as always, but I had trouble understanding her a few times. The most common objecton to Dylan's voice is that you can't understand what he's saying. That has always bothered me as he often overpronounces, and if he doesn't its for effect, to suggest a possible double meaning in a word. Mostly, with McKay I encounter this problem during the middle breaks in "Crazy Rhythm" and "Dig It," which is unfortunate since they are my favorite numbers. Either way, the arrangments on all of the songs are amazing and breath new life into them. The playing is fantastic. While I wish that McKay's luscious piano playing adorned every track, the playing is good all around, particularly Jay Berliner's guitar playing (he sounds like he could put Django to shame) and Charles Pillow's tenor sax.

Dylan enlisted a mixed-voice choir, including the Ditty Bops to provide background vocals, David Hidalgo to play accordion and Phil Upchurch on guitar. He also uses a variety of Christmasy instruments like jingle bells and the celesta to provide the proper aura to the music. It works. It sounds like a 1950s Christmas album, which is what I grew up on this time of year. The arrangement play it straight, and so what stands out is Dylan's vocals. He really tries to sing, and while on some songs he does sound like a moaning whale, on songs like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" he nails the song like no one before him. That song, and many others, find Dylan reverting back to lyrics which are rarely used. On "Adestes Fideles" he reaches all the way back to the Latin. On "Here Comes Santa Claus" he includes the oft-omitted third and fourth verses, and his gruffness places an extra emphasis on the lines where Santa "doesn't care if you're rich or poor. He loves you just the same." I appreciate the song much more with its anti-classicism intact. And then Dylan adds lyrics, but only on one song; with a song as fun as "Must Be Santa" its hard not to indulge in the fact that Vixen rhymes with Nixon.

Worried I'd be disappointed, I'm not. I'm not completely enamored, either, but I feel comfortable awarding each album four of five stars.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Christmas In the Heart that could have been

When Dylan's camp announced a Christmas album, I was expecting few if any originals, though I was hopeful for at least some obscure covers, and at least "Melekaliki Maka." It was revealed shortly thereafter that Christmas In the Heart was to be an album of mostly Christmas standards.

I was a tad disappointed at first, but "Christmas Island" is as good as "Melekalki Maka" and its a song I didn't know before. Dylan's vocals have made me actually pay attention to parts of songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" that I'd always ignored before. Also, when listening to the Christmas episode of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, I've always thought Dylan should make a polka recording each time I heard Brave Combo's recording of "Must Be Santa," which Dylan has now covered and supposedly made a very wild video for.

Having heard several samples, it seems like Dylan has put his own spin on at least a few songs, and payed tribute where it needed payed on others, so it can't be all bad. I also understand that the fantastically creative Ditty Bops contributed the Andrews Sisters' style background vocals; hopefully this will increase their exposure. I can't imagine many Dylan fans disliking a duo who sew their own dresses out of grocery store bags, a talent which is both hot and environmentally friendly.

While I'm putting off listening to the whole album before it is officially released to the public on Tuesday, I did compile a list of Dylan's non-Christmas In the Heart Christmas songs. This should give an idea of what an album of Dylan's Christmas originals may have looked like.

1. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie [from Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 (1991, recorded 1963)
2. Ballad of Donald White [from Best of Broadside 1962-1988, circa 1962)
3. Farewell Angelina [from Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 (1991, recorded 1965)]
4. She Belongs to Me [from Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
5. On the Road Again [from Bringing It All Back Home (1965)]
6. Three Angels [from New Morning (1970)]
7. Arthur McBride [from Good As I Been To You (1992)]
8. Floater (Too Much To Ask) [from "Love and Theft" (2001)]
9. Can't Escape From You [from Tell Tale Signs (2008, recorded 2005)]
10. Huck's Tune [from Lucky You soundtrack (2007)]

1. "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie"

This is actually a poem Dylan wrote, and then decided to recite one time in concert. It doesn't have that much to do with Woody Guthrie, but more to do with the regression of American culture. It is rather lengthy, but one section features Dylan calling out all the people he sees as fakes and phonies, including the people who:

"come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin',
sayin' 'ain't I pretty and ain't I cute?
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow'
when you can't even sense if they got any insides,
these people so pretty in their ribbons and bows."

2. "Ballad of Donald White"

One of Dylan's early topical songs, "Donald White" is set on Christmas. The song is written from White's point of view, a petty criminal who liked jail so much he didn't want to leave. Life on the outside left him feeling alienated and depressed, and so to make sure he had the comforting routine of prison life, he murdered a man on Christmas Eve. Christmas can be a lonely season for those with no one to connect to, and Dylan plays on that in the songs. The detail of Christmas Eve may be factual, but Dylan's topical songs were never noted for sticking to the facts.

3. "Farewell Angelina"

This song was an early exercise in surrealism, and was recorded most famously by Joan Baez. One of the lines is "King Kong, little elves -- on the rooftops they dance." Well, there are elves....

4. "She Belongs to Me"

This song may have been written for Joan Baez. Part of the song reads like a shopping list of presents Dylan meant to give Baez -- "For Halloween buy her a trumpet, / and for Christmas get her a drum" -- but then decided to leave on the curb outside of the gate in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" a few albums later.

5. "On the Road Again"

Not the Willie Nelson song about traveling, Dylan's "On the Road Again" is a hilarious tale of being in love with a girl who is in the crazy house. It also has some of Bob's most "dylanesque" vocals. In addition to noticing things like relatives walking around in Napoleon Bonaparte's mask, when Bob visits the girl, he "ask[s], 'who's there in the fire place?' and [she] tells him Santa Claus."

6. "Three Angels"

New Morning is a summer album, and in this song, which is really more like a poem spoken over music, Dylan evokes the feeling of a small town's rundown mainstreet where the dingy Christmas decorations are still there from the year before. It is the most depressing song on the album by far (though, to be fair, it may be Dylan's happiest album). Dylan imagines the three angels sitting atop telephone poles to be sentient beings, and then wonders if they'd even care that no one seems to notice them.

7. "Arthur McBride"

Technically, this isn't a Dylan original, but it is closer to what I initially expected on Christmas In the Heart. "Arthur McBride" is a folk song about a British army recruiter who attempts to intimidate two young Irish boys into enlisting on Christmas morning. When they not only refuse, but tell him they think the king only wants the Irish to serve as lambs to the slaughter, the enlisting officer tries to attack them, but they end up beating the shit out of him instead. A nice song about a cheerful Christmas morning.

8. "Floater"

In the 2000s, Dylan had several original songs with Christmas in them, so it shouldn't have come as a total surprise that he wanted to record a whole Christmas album. This is the first of the decade. In Floater, Dylan includes the verse:

"My grandfather was a duck trapper;
he could do it with just drag nets and ropes.
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth.
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes.
I had them once though I suppose
to go along with all the rain dancin' and the Christmas carols on all the Christmas eves;
I left all my dreams and hopes
buried under tobacco leaves."

Well, eventually Dylan's dreams end up as compost in the fields of the South, but at least when he did have them it was during a happy time like Christmas. Overall, the feeling is too resigned to be bittersweet; instead, it's almost wistful.

9. "Can't Escape From You"

This recent song is about a woman Dylan wants to get away from but doesn't seem able to live without for long. During one of the many parts of the song where he insults her to no end, he informs her that:

"You've wasted all your power.
You threw out the Christmas pie.
Now you're withering like a flower;
you'll play the fool and die."

Well, either Christmas pie is a song of power or else Dylan needed both a. something to rhyme with "die" and b. something else to fill out the meter.

10. "Huck's Tune"

In perhaps Dylan's most definite statement on the holidays, he has this charming nugget to share: "All the merry elves / can go hang themselves." Yikes!

As a bonus, the album could include the liner notes to John Wesley Harding, which feature a perverse, post-modern recounting of the nativity, blended with the last supper, with Frank(ie Lee) in the role of the Christ manchild and Terry Chute in the role of Dylan's unethical ubermanager Albert Grossman, if he happened to be hanging around Bethlehem at the time.

Ultimately, if Dylan had written Christmas In the Heart, it seems that it would have been a much more dour affair. As it is, it sounds like it will be at least mildly enjoyable as a whole, and some songs will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Record Store Day

So, yeah, I realize that this is the logo for last year's Record Store Day, but the Sun Records-esque logo is too killer to pass on.

This year, tomorrow -- almost today -- is Record Store Day, celebrating the renewed success of vinyl as a medium. If you are fortunate enough to live next to a 45 rpm emporium, go down for a visit and see what's going on. You may encounter special sales, rare collectibles, impromptu concerts by a slew of performers or pre-listening parties for records set for release in the weeks to come. And if you live in New York City, the mayor has even deemed it an official holiday.

National Poetry Month: Martin Espada

Martin Espada is may favorite Latino poet. I mean, just look at his beard. Also, he teaches at University of Massachusetts-Amherts. Before I even knew who Espada was, I wanted to go there to study with James Tate, but now, no matter how great Tate is, I admire Espada's work more. His poems cut to the core. They are always working on at least two levels, often more, and are always engaged with the broader world around him. Espada cares little for self-expression, but instead relies on political commentary and social critique.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to teach a healthy portion of Espada's poetry while working in an Upward Bound summer program a few years back. I admire several of his poems, but my favorite is still the one that first floored me back when I discovered him. Alternatively titled "Late Night at the Pawn Shop" or "Latin Night at the Pawn Shop," the poem begins with a group of kids looking at the instruments in a pawn shop window and imaging themselves in a salsa band. The poem turns dark though, as the children realize that social class has killed their dreams, or as Espada puts it the instruments have "price tags dangling, / like the city morgue ticket / on a dead man's toe."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Stafford

Another important Kansas poet, Stafford has an interesting history. A conscientious objector during World War II, he would go on to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, or Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress as it was called then. I was at a reading once where someone, perhaps Stephen Meats, editor of the Midwestern Quarterly, told an anecdote about how Stafford would not get up out of bed in the morning until he had completed a draft of a poem; the 20,000 pages of his daily writing donated to Lewis and Clark College in 2008 bears out that claim. He was certainly prolific, publishing four separate volumes in 1978 alone.

"Traveling Through the Dark," perhaps Stafford's most famous poem, has the feel of Hutchison, KS, where Stafford grew up and would call home for much of his life. The poem is about finding a deer dead on the side of the highway, and making the decision to push its carcass off the road to keep cars from swerving. The decision becomes complicated whent he speaker feels a baby, still alive, within the doe's belly. The speaker must "think hard for us all," coming upon the decision with no romance, with nothing but feelings of regret and solitude.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

National Poetry Month: Jonathan Holden

To really get a good feel for Jonathan Holden, Kansas's first poet laureate, you should hear him read. The way he phrases his poems is so skillful that when reading poetry on the page, his is the only voice I hear other than the voice in my head -- and perhaps the poet's voice if I know what they sound like -- reading the poem. When I read Charles Simic, it is often Holden's voice I hear reciting it. Also, the introductions he gives to his poems and the bird calls he imitates in "Western Meadowlark" enrich the poetry that much more.

Many of my favorite poems of Holden's, such as "An American Boyhood" and "How To Play Night Baseball," deal with the experience of growing up, of boyhood in the Midwest. My favorite is "Why We Bombed Haiphong," a poem that personifies the B-52 bomber, cleverly nothing the "B-52 was voted 'Most Popular' / and 'Most Likely To Suceed.' // The B-52 would give you the finger / from hot cars. It laid rubber, / it spit, it went around in gangs, / it got it's finger wet and sneered / about it."

I will lave it at that. Holden once told me that the best you can do is quote a poem and let it speak for itself, so that what I'm leaving his work to do.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

National Poetry Month: Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound has long been criticized for his anti-Semitism, and in a way rightfully so. Pound should have been smart enough not to rely on cultural assumptions and stereotypes about Jews. That said, I don't think Pound hated Jews outright. Certainly, he did support Mussolini, but it seems as though he supported fascism because fascist leaders were interested in nationalizing specific industries and in restructuring banks, something the far left also takes an interest in. Specifically, Pound was railing against usury, the loaning of money at inordinate interest rates, such as is done by banks and credit card companies. The cause of usury is greed, and looking at the current economic state we can see where that got us. Banks weren't content to simply charge outrageous interest rates that made it difficult for working families to put a dent in the principle, but they also loaned out to everyone, figuring they could earn more money that way, and when they loaned out to even those unable to pay their rates, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. In Pound's time, the attitude toward Jews was that they mostly made their money off of usury. Pound should have been able to see through that, but the impulse to be against usury was a good one.

As a critic, he came up with better ideas, and expressed them in a more direct way, than almost any other writer I can think of. From editing Ernest Fellosa's "The Chinese Character As A Medium" to The ABC of Reading, Pound's theoretical work is fascinating, infused with wit and consistently thought-provoking. As a poet, hiw work is also strong. "In A Station of the Metro," arguably Pound's most famous poem, was cut down from dozens of pages to just two single lines, two contrasting images that form the verbal equivalent of an Eisensteinian montage.

Pound's "translations" of Chinese poetry recreated their ideas and feelings using his own ideas of how Imagism should be practiced. The peak of this, perhaps, is in "River Merchant's Wife," when the wife's entire emotional complex is embedded in the line "the monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead." Later, Pound's Cantos were revolutionary as intertextual creations, like an extended Wasteland that effortlessly represents a plurality through blending multiple systems of linguistics. They are among the most challenging poems in any and all languages, but all the more rewarding because of it. And to hear Ezra read them, with one of the most intense recorded voices in history, is to be shaken straight out of your bones.

Monday, April 13, 2009

National Poetry Month: T. S. Eliot

Here is Eliot, looking rather Prufrockian, to nab an adjective coined out of one of his most famous poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." That poem imagines an older, balding man arguing with himself, attempting to justify his own social anxieties. The poem is one of his easier poems to get around, and his density had made many readers fail to attempt understanding him.

It is worth known Eliot's work, if only because it is omnipresent. As Eliot himself said, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," and without stealing something from Eliot, we'd be a much poorer world. Can we imagine Watchmen or "Desolation Row" without The Wasteland, or The Great Gatsby without The Hollow Men? If we want to get technical, can we have "Too Much of Nothing" without Eliot's two brides, Valerie and Vivian?

Certainly, as the references to "Desolation Row" and "Too Much of Nothing" attest, Dylan was heavily influenced by Eliot. In the first attempt I made at writing a scholarly article, I researched charges that Eliot was anti-semitic, which I'd thought he was, and then wrote in defense of "Gerontion." In the poem the reader is presented with a Jewish landlord, referred to in the poem in the opening lines as "the jew." Due to Dylan's "Dear Landlord," I immediately thought of the Jewish landlord as Jesus and the building as the world. I read the poem as religious allegory, and the choice to not capitalize "jew" as more of a comment on how Eliot viewed Jesus' place in culture at the time than on the Jewish culture.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

National Poetry Month: John Donne

When I first studied John Donne, I was told his poetry could be broken up into three types depending on when he wrote them. The first type of poem was that attempting to wildly seduce a young woman, such as "The Flea," a poem in which the poet tries to equate intercourse with a bug bite in order to lure a young virgin into bed. After he met and married his love Anne, Donne wrote highly erotic, yet devotional poems chronicling his love for her. After she died, Donne turned his attention toward God, loving God with the same passion, resulting in work like the Holy Sonnets. In truth, its not quite that clear cut, and a poem like "The Canonization" seems to eroticize the church, further complicating matters.

What is true is that with a list of poems that includes both minor classics like "Go and Catch A Falling Star," "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" and "To His Mistress Going to Bed" alongside essential classics like "Death Be Not Proud," "For Whom the Bells Toll" and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," it is hard to go wrong with a good collection of Donne's works. Van Morrison didn't ask him to rave on for nothing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was a doctor by trade, which accounts for why many of his poems, with the quite notable exception of the book-length Patterson, are short -- he purportedly scribbled them on prescription pads between patients. The lack of both time and space meant they were simply short and imagistic. His most famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," reflects how one rural patient is forced to depend on technologysuch as the wheelbarrow or his very livelihood. "This Is Just To Say" was supposedly written on a post-it note and left on the refrigerator for his wife in the morning.

Friday, April 10, 2009

National Poetry Month: Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley had a long and prolific career as an American poet. He began his career being associated with the Black Mountain poets, studying with Charles Olson but not limiting himself to projected verse. Later, he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and moved in the circles of beat poets.

Among Creeley's best-known poems is "I Know A Man." This poem's excellence derives from its ability to constantly defer meaning. Mimetic of the lack of meaning in the world, many of the words are clipped, such as "sd" for "said" or "yr" for "your." The two syllables of "surrounds" are split on different lines. The speaker calls his friend John, but then immediately confesses that this is not his friend's name. He starts waxing philosophical, but then in the last stanza the friend tells the speaker to drive, or to become grounded in reality rather than abstraction.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson

At the same time Walt Whitmas was developing one major strand of poetry, that of communal elebration and the use of the long, flowing line, Emily Dickinson was developing the other strand -- eloquent expression of the personal using short lines and caesura,most effectively expressed in her use of the dash. Dickinson's poetry was so intensely private that she published very little in her own lifetime, instead keeping her work to herself and only letting it be discovered after her death.

Because of this, most of Dickinson's poems are known by the first line or by simply a number. Her most famous works include "Wild Nights" and "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

National Poetry Month: Carl Sandburg

When he wasn't busy penning kooky kids stories that make little sense, like those found in Rootabaga Stories, or collecting a wide swath of American folk songs to be included in the American Songbag, Carl Sandburg was busy writing poems that exhibited a strong American voice, the kind of voice that feels like hard work just fighting to get off the page and into the factory.

Sandburg's most famous poem is likely "Chicago," a portrait of one of the most American cities. The second strophe begins "They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas pumps luring the farm boys." The strophe continues in a list like this, but ends with a turn as Sandburg unexpectedly champions such wickedness. An intriguing and spirited turn on America's most American, if not greatest, city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

National Poetry Month: Peter Cooley

Peter Cooley holds a dear place in my heart among American poets. When I was studying as an undergraduate, most of my work was focused on my family and, while some of the poetry I was putting out was inspired, some of it was also just memoirs with line breaks. Cooley read at Pittsburg State University shortly before I graduated, on April 11, 2002 if his inscription in The Astonished Hours is to be believed.

A Place Made of Starlight hadn't come out yet and the most recent book he had finished was Sacred Conversations. I read it over time and time again in the months that followed. I wrote a review of it for my first graduate workshop and aggressively told people they had to read it, which led to someone eventually running off with the copy I'd bought at Cooley's reading. I have since repurchased it.

The title refers specifically to a series of poems in which Cooley directly interacts with various literary characters, such as "For Jay Gatsby," "For Daisy Miller," "For Emma Bovary in Heaven," and "To Emily Dickinson in New Orleans" to name just a few. This last one in particular grabbed me, as the speaker imagines himself in a passionate love affair with Emily Dickinson that gets played out in the library stacks, later teased by his friends for going after a much older woman. Before reading this, I never recognized that the way I interacted with a text might be unique and interesting in and of itself.

Cooley also interacts with texts in less direct ways. The book opens with a poem called "To My Hypocrite Reader," a play on the similarly titled "To the Reader" that opens Baudelaire's Les Fleurs Du Mal. In this way, I learned how to better use allusion in my own work by reading a master like Cooley. If it weren't for Sacred Conversations, I probably would have never written "Lost Inside the Neon-Fruit Supermarket," which is probably the poem I feel proudest of. If you have an interest in poetry, pick up one of Cooley's fantastic books when you get a chance. You will have trouble putting it down.

Together Through Life Preview

Am I excited about the new Dylan album, Together Through Life, scheduled to come out April 28? You can bet your sweet bippy I am. I'm more excited than usual because of the involvement of David Hidalgo, accordion guru from Los Lobos. Their covers of "Billy" on the I'm Not There soundtrack and "On A Night Like This" on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack blew away Dylan's originals, mostly because the instrumentation was so vibrant.

As of yesterday, Dylan's people have publicly previewed two of the album's tracks: "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and "I Feel A Change Comin' On."

"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" swings with gusto, but lyrically it is pretty weak. There are really only two stand-out lines: "boulevards of broken cars," which is interesting because it sets the listener up for the cliche of "broken dreams" and then throws in a surprise, and "beyond here lies nothin' but the mountains of the past." This last line comes from the penultimate chorus, which always begins with "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," but then alternates the last line with each verse. This one, with the idea of a towering, insurmountable past, takes the cake.

Lyrically, "I Feel A Change Comin' On" is stronger. It opens up with the singer imagining watching his girl "walkin' with the village priest." A few verses later, he advises his girl that if she wants to "live easy, baby pack your clothes with mine." This has a strangely sweet and romantic quality to it the way Dylan puts it. (The line is actually stolen from an old Tommy Johnson blues lyric.) From the title, many people prematurely guessed this would be a song about Barack Obama, who talked a lot about "change" during his campaign. He also talked about "hope," and a few albums ago Dylan told us that he "left all [his] dreams and hopes buried under tobacco leaves." Here he tells us, in a unique way, that they never did him any good: "Dreams never did work for me anyway, even when they did come true." This last bit deepens the song's sadness by imbueing it with a sense of futility.

Later, Dylan sings to the woman in the song, who embodies whatever hope is left, that she is "as ???? as ever" and that she "could start a fire." It sounds to me like he is saying she is as "Horace" as ever, but that makes no literal sense. Dylan has been quoting Ovid lately, so I wouldn't put it past him to namedrop Horace (maybe one of the lyric hounds should be sniffing around Horace's "Ars Poetica" and looking for clues), but it makes no sense. He could be saying she is "hoarse," but Dylan's not the pot to call the kettle black, it sounds to my ears as though he utters two syllables, and that still makes no sense. A third option is "porous," and pumice, a rock formed as lava cools, is porous....

The song's best lines, though, come at the end: "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I'm reading James Joyce. Some people tell meI've got the blood of the land in my voice." These lines are powerful, but the music in this song is light and breezy, like jazz floating across on a summer breeze. It doesn't sound like there's any blood in the voice, especially not that of the land. That isn't to say the song isn't enjoyable; it has the same feel as the better-than-half-the-album "Spirit On the Water" off of Modern Times, but whereas that song, with its lyrics that suggest it is from the point of view of Cain trying to make amends at the end of his life, succeeds at blending the lyrics and the melody, here the lyrics seem better suited to an arrangement like that of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." Had he set the lyrics of "I Feel A Change Comin' On" to that sort of beat, he'd have a real masterpiece on his hands. As it is, I'm anticipating a strong album and an enjoyable listen, but nothing that is going to turn anyone's head upside down.

Monday, April 6, 2009

National Poetry Month: Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo was inspired by America, particularly small town America. His book The Triggering Town, a landmark of poetic theory, talked about how one should begin with description and let that trigger the imagination, so that the poem is able to move off of the triggering subject and move onto something else. The things which best triggered Hugo were towns -- especially those which were struggling, stuck in a post-industrial mire. He is best known for poems like "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg" and "The Lady In Kicking Horse Reservoir."

Hugo's poems are filled with haunting, dark imagery. "Living Alone" is a poem in that streak. It begins auspicious enough, with the speaker explaining his weird but intriguing life in the woods where he fraternizes with deer. Later he reveals that his cabin was the site of a murder, particularly that of the woman. The speaker suddenly becomes defensive and territorial, leaving the reader shaken, and their thoughts hanging as to whether the speaker is a murderer or just a madman.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Blake

William Blake was a true visionary, andhis visions reached beyond the Jim Morrison variety, though he may be most famous for being the biggest influence on the Doors' frontman. He similarly had a large influence on the Frency Symboliste poets, who also influenced The Doors as well as Bob Dylan. Indeed, "The Tyger," one of Blake's most well known poems, has been set to music more times than any other poem I can think of.

Despite other masterpieces like "The Auguries of Innocence," Blake's reputation rests mostly upon Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. These two companion volumes, released in lavishly lithographed illustrated editions, imagine the world as created first by a Christian God and then by Satan. They are best read inconjunction, and may poems, such as "The Lamb," "London," and "The Sick Rose," have been extracted and heavily anthologized.

One of the most unique contributions Blake has made to the arts is in way of inspiring the Jim Jarmusch surrealist comedy Dead Man in which a Native American taking peyote mistakes a man named William Blake as the ghost of the poet, whose works he has confused with those of Jim Morrison.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

National Poetry Month: Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg has managed to make himself one of America's most distinguished iconoclasts, leading the counter culture when he was young and then becoming mainstream enough to show up to the AWP conference in coat and tie in the years before his death. Ginsberg has had several collections of poetry go on to be literary classics -- in addition to Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Reality Sandwiches, Planet News, and Fall of America are all classics. Kaddish, named after a Jewish death prayer, deals with the passing of his mother Naomi. Fall of America, recipient of the National Book Award, is a series of poems chronicling the counter-culture, and especially its opposition to Vietnam. Planet News inspired the title of Bob Dylan's album Planet Waves; two years later Ginsberg joined Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Review and wrote the liner notes for Desire.

My favorite Ginberg poem may be "Supermarket in California," a poem in which Ginsberg imagines stalking Walt Whitman's ghost as he shops in a modern-day grocery store, interacting with contemporary commerce. In it, as in much of his work, Ginsberg adopts Whitman's unique style of writing and the long line which is his trademark.

Ginsberg also did much to bridge the gap between music and poetry. He recorded the album First Blues with Bob Dylan. Near his death, he recorded "Ballad of the Skeletons" with Paul McCartney. A fantastic version of him reading "America" exists set against the background of Tom Waits' "Closing Time." It is breathtaking and powerful.

Friday, April 3, 2009

National Poetry Month: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I'll be the first to admit that Lawrence Ferlinghetti's greatest contribution to American poetry is not as a poet but rather as a publisher. Ferlinghetti ran the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, the home of the Beat poets. Without Ferlinghetti, important books like Gregory Corso's Gasoline may not have been published. His most famous publication, of course, is Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, which brought national attention when Ferlinghetti was forced to defend the book in an obscenity trial, one he won in a landmark victory for the first amendment.

While his work as a publisher and book store entrepreneur is important, Ferlinghetti's poetry is also quite good. His second volume, Coney Island of the Mind, has one of the most fantastic titles I know of, a great description of how poetry is a neural carnival. The words inside it give a good blend of the natural and surrealist worlds. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" was featured on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour and is an intriguing piece of work. In it, the speaker imagines reading Pound's Cantos in the stands at Yankees' Stadium and having minority baseball players knock the ball through its pages; this poem is the most playful attempt I've read of someone trying to come to terms with Pound's World War II era politics.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

National Poetry Month: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of those poets who is ever-present in American culture. I can't remember not knowing "Harlem," "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," or "Mother to Son." Digging a little deeper, I found "I, Too," which I understood intuitively at once, and gained a deeper understanding of when I had the context of Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Walt also shows up in Hughes' "Old Walt."

Another Hughes' poem of allusory importance for me has been "Port Town." Despite its short lines, it had that same celebratory feel of so much of Whitman's work. I automatically loved its spirit. It was reading this poem that I first came to the realization that Hughes was homosexual, which greatly increased my empathy. Later, rereading Whitman with "Port Town" in mind, I came to the same realization. The real importance to me, though, was in helping me finally come to an understanding of Emily Dickinson, a poet I have continually struggled to get. Seeing the line "Wild, white nights," I took it as an allusion to Dickinson's "Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!" Reading it, I saw the whole poem was homage, her poem being about a wild night with a sailor she meets at port. Also, it let me see why Hughes' uses short lines. Although he doesn't use dashes, Hughes is able to conjure a voice which meshes with Whitman's even while emulating Dickinson. Rereading her now is a much more pleasurable experience.

Hughes most important poetic contribution, though, may be Montage of a Dream Deferred. This epic is made up of several different, smaller poems, much in the same way as a poem like Allen Ginsberg's Fall of America would later be composed. Many of the poems within it have been anthologized without the context of the others, but taken all at once, the poem is a beautiful experience. For a good sample poem within it, consider "Ballad of the Landlord," a piece which implies a ballad, follows a blues form before fragmenting into jazz. Truly transformative.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month: Walt Whitman

It is time again for a new month's worth of themed posts, and this month is is National Poetry Month, featuring 30 poets well worth checking out if you haven't done so. To kick off the month, I present the King of American Poetry: Walt Whitman. Of course, America is founded on the principle that we have no kings (sans Elvis I guess), which means that to be a king here you have to be a supporter of democracy.

Whitman loved democracy with a little "d," that conceptual belief that all people are equal, extolled through form in poem's like "I Hear America Singing." He was also a fan of Republicans, back when they were the good guys, the new kids after Abraham Lincoln became the last third party candidate to win the presidency. No where is Lincoln better memorialized than in "O Captain, My Captain," unless, of course, you are like me and prefer "When Lilacs Last In the Doorway Bloom'd." Lincoln inhabited several Whitman poems, taking the foreground in those and lurking around the fringes of several others.

Unlike poets today who publish several books, Whitman only published one, Leaves of Grass, but he published it eight times, adding poems, subtracting poems, and constantly revisiting with each new edition. By the time he died, the book had grown from a modest 95 page volume into one that was several hundred pages long. It was a book which Whitman commented was "almost always successful in the open air," and he was right. I didn't understand Whitman until one day I decided to recite him out loud, outside. As I did, the words spread out before me, issueing from my mouth and rearranging themselves to show me a whole new world. The experience was fantastic. Try it for yourself! I suggest "Starting From Paumanok" as a good starting point, though the more traditional "Song of Myself'" may work just as well.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Women's History Month: Nellie McKay

With three albums (Get Away From Me, Pretty Little Head, and Obligatory Villagers) and an ep (Rumor Has It....) under her belt, Nellie McKay may be the most consistently brilliant performer I know of. While some of her recordings are better than others, she hasn't made an serious missteps yet, and I can think of none of my other artists who I can say that about. (Okay, I suppose Buddy Holly, but he died so young.) She plays nearly as many instruments as Prince, she garnered rave reviews for her stage acting in Threepenny Opera (and she may have done well in P.S. I Love You if her character had been given enough space for McKay to breath life into her). She has written at least sixty songs, which is more than many artists can claim over a whole career. Her arrangements are fresh and inventive. I savedNellie for last this month simply because she is the best. I can think of no contemporary musician who is half as inspiring.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Women's History Month: Kimya Dawson

Sesame Street has always been hip, but I don't think they've ever solicited the participation of anyone stranger than Kimya Dawson. Of course, it seems less odd given that she recorded a children's album, titled Alphabutt, late last year.

Dawson came to prominence last year with the release of the soundtrack to Juno. The soundtrack features several solo compositions, as well as her work with Antsy Pants and the Moldy Peaches. The soundtrack climbed to the number one spot, giving her mainstream coverage. Of her selections on the soundtrack, my favorite remains "Loose Lips," a song that manages to make references to World War I related-slogans and Scrabble, all while being a simultaneously anti-war and anti-suicide song. Good stuff indeed.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Women's History Month: Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston has added at least two literary masterpieces to the American canon, and in different genres. This is more than most writers can claim. Even Mark Twain, for better or worse the quintessential benchmark of American prose, arguably only managed to create a masterpiece in one genre (depending on your opinion on Innocents Abroad).

Kingston's memoirs, published as Woman Warrior, and a brave exploration of identity both as woman and Asian-American. Her novel Tripmaster Monkey is an even more impressive work. It adapts the central character from Wu Cheng'en's folk novel Journey To the West and places him in the more contemporary context of late-1960s San Francisco and that whole Haight-Ashbury scene. It is a fantastic read, bursting with energy.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Women's History Month: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has a reputation as a science fiction writer, based heavily on recieving the Arthur C. Clark award for Handmaid's Tale. While the setting is futuristic, there is nothing about it to suggest that it is based on any sort of fantasy world. The novel presents a dystopian future that calls to mind George Orwell's 1984 and seems like a future we may still head into. In it, women are stolen from their husbands, given to men of power, are renamed as their property (Offred, Ofglen, etc.), and forced into an emotionally unfulfilling life of enforced alienation. The characters are memorable. Serena Joy plays a complete Tammy Faye Baker, a female (and therefore supposedly more palatable to a female audience) version of Pat Robertson. Fred, a framer of this republic, realizes the pitfalls of the society he helped to create, but has created a society so vile that even he is helpless against it. The book is an entangled web that weaves a powerful spell.

Other books of note include Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, and Oryx and Crake. Atwood is also known for her poetry. While much of her poetry is about myths and fantasies, the poem she is best known for is a much-anthologized imagist piece that sets up an Eisensteinian contrast:

You fit into me like a hook into an eye;
a fish hook, an open eye.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Women's History Month: Mary Lou Lord

Mary Lou Lord is an underrated singer-songwriter. Existing virtually completely off the radar, it is difficult to find anything but her one semi-major label album, got no shadow, that was released on Work Records in the mid-90s. Highlights of that fine album include "His Latest Flame," a unique and poppy reworking of the Elvis hit "Marie's the Name (His Latest Flame)." A cover of the folk classic "Shake Sugaree," the only song on the album she didn't write, is the best performance I have ever heard of the song. Simply stunning.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Women's History Month: Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott is one of the dopest rappers in the game, and not only is she creatively talented, but also empowering. She has come under fire for explicitly rapping about female sexual dominance, but as she says herself on Under Construction:

"I be representin' for the ladies, and we got somethin' to say. We've been quiet too long -- lady-like and very patient. .... We've always had to deal with the guys sayin' how they are gonna wear us out on records. So I had to do records that were strictly representing for my ladies, and how to keep your man's eyes from lookin' around. And sex is not a topic we should always sweep under the rug."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Women's History Month: Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, pictured here in a self portrait circa the late 1990s, is a powerful musician and stunning songwriter. Her most popular album, Court and Spark, launched the style of pop she is most known for, one that blends folk and jazz into a unique sound. That album features many memorable tracks, like "Free Man In Paris" and "Raised On Robbery," in addition to the well-known "Help Me." Later albums that explored this musical style to great effect, but which have been unfairly underrated, include Mingus and Hissing of the Summer Lawns.

Mitchell established herself, of course, in folk, writing songs like "Chelsea Morning," "Woodstock," "The Circle Game" and "Big Yellow Taxi" for her first several albums. Her fourth album, Blue, is the peak of her folk phase. The whole album is stunning and features excellent session work from James Taylor and David Crosby. I think it surpasses anything they ever did on their own. In addition to its well known songs -- "The River," "A Case of You" -- overlooked gems like "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "This Flight Tonight" pop up all over. Every time I listen to Blue, a number of times that must now number near the thousands, I walk away with a different song off of it as my favorite. Few albums can hold the kind of consistency.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Women's History Month: Julia Alvarez

One of the group of recent Latina writers to add her voice to the American pantheon, Dominican Julia Alvarez is proud of her peers such as Sandra Cisneros. While she has yet to reach the same level of acclaim as Cisneros, she has been much heralded for her fiction, most notably How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent.

Her poetry, while not quite as well known, is just as interesting. One thing that makes Alvarez's poetry interesting is that she often works in or adapts traditional forms, such as in her "Bilingual Sestina." The Woman I Kept To Myself, her 2004 collection of poetry, is composed entirely of a nonce form of her own creation; each poem is made up of three ten line stanzas. Within this framework she is able to carve out a place for female discourse, and within that space a niche for specifically Latina discourse as well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Women's History Month: Harper Lee

Harper Lee may be something of a one-hit wonder in the literary world, but what a hit it was. To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing tale, and it fills me with amazement and wonder at the world of Boo Radley and indignant rage at those who would shame the children for their tolerance.

After rereading this book for the umpteenth time last summer, I watched the film version with Gregory Peck again. People always talk about how great it is. For me, it fails not because its necessarily a bad movie, but because Lee's words are so vibrant and powerful. After that book, she helped Truman Capote research In Cold Blood and then faded into obscurity. I with that now, at 83 years old, she'd release a second book. If she only had one to give, though, she packed a life full of passion into it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Women's History Month: S. E. Hinton

Susan Eloise Hinton, better known as S. E. to her hordes of fans, was the writer who had the greatest impact on me during my high school years. I first read That Was Then, This Is Now in eigth grade because I liked the font on the cover (yes, I've always been one to judge books by their covers). It was okay. The next year, I read Outsiders, not knowing it was a prequel to That Was Then, This is Now, and that got me hooked. I remember reading it straight through in one sitting. I started crying off and on right brom the start, but then about halfway through, hot tears started streaming down my face and didn't stop until some time after I'd finished the book. In rapid-fire succession I devoured Rumble Fish and Tex, with Tex affecting me the same way Outsiders had.

My senior year, I discovered that the main branch of the city library had Taming the Star Runner. I convinced my parents to take a special trip downtown to the main branch, a place I'd rarely been to. It matched Outsiders and Tex, which I didn't expect since it is so much more rural. Recently, Hinton has begun writing for adults and Hawkes' Harbor is near the top of my summer reading list this year.

I've often wondered why she is known as S. E. In high school, I thought those were her names, like the S. in Harry Truman. I always intuitively knew she was a woman when I read her books, but thinking back I wonder if, since her subject matter was stereotypically boys' stuff if she wasn't pressured to do so just so no one thought her books were for sissies. When I was a tweenage boy, I don't know if anyone understood me better.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Women's History Month: Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn has long been a controversial figure in country music, releasing songs that tackled tough topics, like "The Pill," but that still managed to become hits. She insisted that any topic that related to women was worth writing about, and women's rights have been a stalwart thematic feature of her lyrics since she started her career. A decade before that song "Dear Uncle Sam," a mother's lament for her dead son, was one of the first songs to address Vietnam; Lynn has resurrected the song live since the United States entered with war on Iraq.

In 2004 Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White, revitalized her career. Her followup album is set for release later this year. If Van Lear was any indication, Lynn still has what it takes and her strongest work may be ahead of her yet.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Women's History Month: Angela Davis

Angela Davis is where the women's movement met the Black Power movement. An active member of both the Black Panthers and SNCC, the Studen Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, Davis has been a prominent activist since the 1960s. After standing trial as accesory to the murder of Judge Harold Haley and being found not guilty, with the support of such international celebrities as John Lennon and Mick Jagger, Davis became a staunch opponent of the prison system.

Davis fled to Cuba and later visited Soviet Europe and ran for office on the Communist Party ticket in the United States before quitting the Party and re-identifying herself as a democratic socialist. Though all of this time, she has remained strong, and is currently a professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Women's History Month: Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule is an amazingly talented songwriter and musician. Each of her albums is remarkable in its own way. She is most well-known for the original song titled "I Kissed A Girl," which is a tongue-in-cheekier lesbian tale than Katy Perry's take on it. She is also well known for "Supermodel," an anorexia ode which graced the soundtrack to the nineties cinema landmark that was Clueless.

The above two songs came from her second album, 1995's Jill Sobule. Sobule's best album, though, is likely 2004's Underdog Victorious. One song is a compassionate narrative biography of It-girl Joey Heatherton that comes off as being about Britney Spears. "Cinnamon Park" is a pot-infused hippy song complete with a Chicago sample. The real gem is "Jetpack," a story about being in love with a girl too rich and self-absorbed to appreciate her, and the strain the social class difference causes in their relationship. It's Marxist heartbreak at its finest.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Women's History Month: Elizabeth Grosz

Elizabeth Grosz is a post-structuralist theorist who focuses on the body as text. She analyzes and defines the human anatomy along a gender spectrum which bends and curves to accomodate the multiplicity of human forms. Her book Volatile Bodies explains this spectrum and how, just as gender is constructed, we can de-construct it by recontextualizing our bodies.

Although I haven't read Grosz's later works, I have heard her lecture from them. Sadly, she only sees the possibility of gender deconstruction for females now. In her theory, men are robbed of that agency, which is a bit sexist, though I still think her work on gender theory is overall a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Women's HIstory Month: Odetta

Odetta sadly died earlier this year, and she is sorely missed. Known for being a civil rights leader as well, her fame came foremost from being a folk singers. The Tradition label reissued her first two albums not that long ago on CD in a collection called Odetta: The Essential Masters. If it is still available, check it out. It has some powerful performances of obscure material you are unlikely to hear elsewhere. I listened to it the morning she died and it pounded in my ears like rain.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Women's History Month: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates began her career with what may be her best piece of writing, a little short story named "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Published in 1965, it tells the story of a naive teeny-bopper named Connie who necks with the boys from the other side of the tracks just to escape her boring family. Unfortunately, her adventures with the boys take a decidedly darker turn when she gets noticed by a sadistic serial rapist named Arnold Friend. Friend stakes out her house, and when her parents leave he mentally torments Connie until she loses her mind and can do nothing but obey him. She leaves her house, gets in the car and rides toward must what be imminent doom.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Women's History Month: Mavis Staples

Even when Pops Staples was running the show back in her early days with the Staples Singers, Mavis was obviously the star. She has one of the most powerful voices ever to grace vinyl, strong and sure of itself.

When she tapped Ry Cooder to produce We'll Never Turn Back, she was able to create what may get my vote for the best album of 2007. If it wasn't the best, it was certainly among them. In it, she takes gospel standards and tweaks them a bit to make them sing to today's concerns. I was blessed to be able to see her perform in support of it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Women's History Month: Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton is a poet none for taking the female body as her subject matter. Her most famous poem to the general public may be "homage to my hips," but other poems like "ode to my uterus" and a series of poems about the experience of going through menopause provide her with even stronger evocations of the female experience. Using folksy language to talk about a subject most shy away from, Clifton has forged herself a unique voice in American poetry.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Women's History Month: Malvina Reynolds

You have to love Malvina Reynolds if for no other reason than she is eating the ultimate foo in the picture above. Luckily, though, there is an abundance of other reasons to love her as well. An old folky, Reynolds was a writer of political anthems. Her two most notbale compositions are "What Have They Done To the Rain, Ma?" and "Little Boxes." The former is about the effects of nuclear bomb testing on the environment and was made popular by artists including the Seekers and Joan Baez. "Little Boxes" is a song about the boringness of conformity. It has recieved increased popularity in recent years after appearing as the theme song to the comedy Weeds. "What Have They Done To the Rain?" is ripe for an even larger resurgence.

Its a shame Malvina's not still around. I bet she'd have a whole lot of praise toe the country in electing its new president, and a whole lot to say about how most of us could still be living our lives quiet a bit differently.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Women's History Month: bell hooks

bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins. She is the female counterpart to Cornel West, having authored volumes with him, and in addition to being interested in issues central to the Black community, bell hooks also is interested in women's issues, and particularly is interested in how these issues intersect and how oppression is layered for those suffering from double or triple jeopardy, a condition which describes being oppressed because of multiple categoricals, i.e. race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity. She believes that these idea are so important that she chooses not to capitalize her name, so that attention is drawn to her ideas rather than to her.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Women's History Month: Joan Baez

Joan Baez began her career as an interpreter of traditional song. Her first albums are a treasure trove of obscure, ancient balladry. Slowly, Bob Dylan songs started to creep on, and by the fifth album the majority of her albums were made up of covers of Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, etc. They were important songs for the time, but Baez didn't really come into her own as a singer of popular songwriting until Diamonds and Rust, an album which she wrote much of herself. The title track chronicles her relationship with Bob Dylan and how it has evolved over time, taking him to task for psuedo-deep vagueness and crescendos to its peak with a moving description of the lovers in Washington Square.