Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What Albums Do You Consider Perfect Records? by Peter Reum

How would you define an album that is flawless musically, lyrically, and technically? In 60 years of listening, there are only a few that are, for me, so satisfying that I can listen to them anytime, anywhere. What brought me to write about this topic was that today, I pulled out an album that still shines brightly nearly 50 years after it was first released.

Marvin Gaye's What's Going On happened to rise to the top of a bunch of cds I like. My late sister Susan had excellent taste in music, and I first heard Marvin's masterpiece on her little stereo. Not being an expert on quality of sound mixing, I heard the album as a complete gestalt type of listening experience. I went out and bought my first of many copies of the album.

The years immediately preceding What's Going On being released were difficult years for African Americans.  Fed up with token help, frustrated after the deaths of leaders, the advent of rioting began to show up in a number of United States cities. Foreshadowing the talking protest albums from Gil Scott Heron,  the protest music from Sly Stone, and the militance of the Black Panthers, What's Goin' On  delivered passionate music by a passionate recording artist. No one who heard What's Going On ever doubted the deep passion and emotional turmoil artists like Marvin Gaye expressed in their music.

I will not spend time speaking about the relationship between Marvin and his father. That Marvin and his father did not get along would be a generous description of father and son. Marvin's death after being shot by his father is a tragedy that is hard to accept. Marvin's father, a Pentecostal minister, had emotional issues with Marvin that took their toll on both men.

In 1970, Marvin had an idea for a concept album that would express the love he felt for his family and fans.  In a sense, the nine songs making up the What's Going On album are meditations on the problems of the era. Marvin describes his perceptions in a manner that empowers his mind to identify the various issues and to express his thoughts and impressions of why life  problems are a serious dilemma for him. The author tied young African Americans who are trying to stay prayerful about the numerous barriers to a better quality of life. It is clear that Marvin Gaye found some inspiration in exploring barriers to equality in mind as well as in the projects, jobs, breaking open new paths to success at radio, tv, and unique press stories once the album got airtime.

What's Going On has nine songs that, help frame the optimistic and pessimistic feelings that make the record so powerful. The discussion of topics that were timely in 1971 are minimally expressed, causing there to be a certain optimism to be absorbed by the listener. Each of the nine songs on What's Going On is a prayer for action or justice. If a listener comprehends Marvin's spirituality, this album that is as powerfully in 2018 as it was in 1971.

The incredible title single from the album opens with a conversation between a person who has been away from the neighborhood for awhile. The returned traveler receives his answer from a friend from the neighborhood who answers his questions. The friend answers by confirming there are no jobs, cannot pay the rent, children are hungry, and other problems. 

The person from the neighborhood answers his returning soldier friend by explaining how addiction has made his life impossible. His friend goes on to elaborate that there is no reason addicts can see to get off the dope because things are so desperately awful. His friend asks "who really cares to save a world that is destined to die?" "Such a bad way to live..." The friend then seems to experience a revelation, and says "Let's Save the the babies...."

As the meditation or prayer continues,  Marvin says "God is my friend." All God asks is that people love each other.  The answers continue to the newly returned traveler. The friend who continues to tell him about how things are ecologically. He says the sky's are grey, poison is carried in the air, and that oil spills kill the animals, fish are laced with mercury, radiation above and below ground is killing animals and people. The question raised is " how much more abuse from mankind can our Earth take before the Earth dies. 

Then, suddenly a meditation on what is going well in the world arises as if to make the point that only love can conquer the world's darkness.  Helping people like nurses, ministers, and people who follow God make up the core of the new world, a world that is full of true love. Love is the way our world can transform itself into a beautifully happier and more peaceful way. 

Marvin's beautiful meditation on the state of the world in 1971 pleads with his listeners to save the babies and the children of the world as an act of love, and even if futile, to do so because it is the spiritually correct thing to do.
Marvin saw our world's destruction and defiling as a act of suicide as a species. The bridges between tracks segue each song (meditation), helping his listeners see the state of this small world through his eyes, bringing a sense of immediacy to the problems of our planet. In one sense, the songs are a prayer to action, to examine our state of mind, and to come into harmony with the world, instead of treating the Earth as our personal playground to plunder.

The two songs that are formally prayers, Wholy Holy and God is Love are placed at critical locations in what may be a song cycle. God is Love is placed after the reunion of two friends, one who is getting back from a war overseas and wants to know all that has changed while he was gone. His friend answers his questions with information about hunger and poverty in the neighborhood, and horrible drug addiction. Following God Is Love, the friend from the neighborhood about the pollution that is ruining the Earth and killing people.

The friend then tells the soldier that pure love that is from God will conquer the  evil and suffering that people are feeling. especially on their mutual neighborhood. What follows next is Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), which many listeners have interpreted to be a return to expression of anger and frustration about their neighborhood. Personally, I have always seen the song to be a call to action.  If we continue to accept conditions as they are, such as stereotypes about other races and ethnicities,  the planet and life on it will die. Furthermore, I see a strong sense of frustration with having to put up with being stereotypically judged based on skin color or national background. What the person from the neighborhood does, is to ask his traveling friend to settle down and help the world get better after being in a very unpopular war. probably Viet Nam. Love conquers hate. 

Shall we begin??

Copyright 2018 by Peter Reum
All Rights Reserved 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

What Constitutes Music of the Old West? by Peter Reum

Perhaps, like me, you grew up listening to Western Music. This music is, by definition, not the music of the Nashville variety. In my mind, Western Music would belong more to a popular style often constituted of a single vocalist and a guitar. The Western Music genre was made popular by artists who were not always  natives of the Western United States. Folkways put together a Cowboy Song album in the 1950s, which was derived from folk music research.  The artists on the album are varied, with some being better known as folk song singers.  When I was a young boy of 3 or 4 years of age, my favorite thing to do was to listen to the radio, which featured cowboy bands and singers.

A brief review of cds sold by Amazon using the words Western Music yields a wide variety of  choices. In strictly the Cowboy/Western genre, there are at least 10 to choose from, including two boxed sets. Having purchased a wide variety of cds from Rhino, the set I chose to buy first is called simply Songs of the West, and was issued by Rhino. The only way this set is available is by purchasing it used. My affection for this set is great, as my mind and heart were reawakened while hearing it. Those of you who have followed this blog are aware that I have generally chosen to focus my posts around issues around the Western United States. That said, this is the first blog entry here that  focuses on Cowboy/Western Music.

Cowboys are an American phenomenon, having begun in Mexico and Latin America. When the United States became an Atlantic to Pacific Ocean country, the parts of the USA that were previously Mexican territory and the music sung by the Mexican vaqueros became part of the Cowboys' life. This set is excellent, as are most boxed sets prepared by Rhino, a mix of  popular Cowboy Music, dating from 1935 through 1960. The selections from Songs of the West tap into a feeling of nostalgia. The 72 tracks on the 4 cd set are themed. The first cd focuses on popular Cowboy/Western Music that are most likely to be familiar to people who listened to the original 78 rpm discs, or the movie soundtracks in the genre. This first of four articles will focus on the better known Western Music artists.

Cover Art for the Rhino Songs of the West cd Boxed Set

The first cd in this set emphasizes the tunes and artists that are recognizable due to their popularity at the time they were hits. The artists featured here are top flight, including Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Patsy Montana, Marty Robbins, Riders in the Sky, Rex Allen Sr., Ian Tyson, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Tex Owens, and the Riders of the Purple Sage. Walter Brennan, known best as Grandpa McCoy on the tv series The Real McCoys, calls the play by play on the Gunfight in the Okay Corral, which makes him sound like an ancient cowboy recalling the fight when he saw it first hand. 

Gene Autry, a pioneer of Western Music who eventually became a wealthy owner of the Los Angeles Angels, opens disc 1 with his iconic Back in the Saddle Again. Autry became a producer and star of Western motion pictures and theater short films. Autry would go on to record hundreds of Western songs, but his most famous tune was always Back in the Saddle Again. Cowboy Blues, another Gene Autry performance, is somewhat of a cowboy lament type of song. Autry draws sympathetic thoughts from the listener. If there could be blues music in Western themed songs, Cowboy Blues would be a blues song, often termed a lament.

Tumblin' Tumbleweeds is perhaps one of the best known songs in the Western genre of songs. The tune appeared in the eponymous motion picture, Gene Autry's first. The song went on to become the theme song of the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers vocal group. The song, along with Cool Water, was written by Bob Nolan, one of the original Sons of the Pioneers.

Cattle Call, written by Tex Owens, and first performed by Owens, is a popular song recorded by dozens of Western singers. The version on this Songs of the West set is the 1934 Owens version.

To late 20th and early 21st Century listeners, Tex Ritter may be better known being the father of the late tv comedian John Ritter, best known from the television series Three's Company. For older Western Music listeners, Tex Ritter's classic Western Music recordings are in the vanguard of the genre. (Take Me Back to My) Boots and Saddle was one of Tex Ritter's finest performances and an early hit. Ironically, the song was written by three Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

The 1964 Western film, Gunfight at the OK Corral, recounted the Tombstone, Arizona gunfight between the Earps and the Clantons. In contrast to the 1956 movie with Burt Lancaster, the 1964 film featured music. Music may be a generous description of Walter Brennan's spoken word performance, as it is more of a narrative. 

The song Big Iron appears on the Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs album. Robbins had a tenor voice that was immediately recognizable. The album is perhaps one of the best concept albums in the Western Music genre. Some 62 years after it was first released, it remains in print. One interesting fact is that the Beach Boys' tune Heroes and Villains from the Smile album was lyrically inspired by this Marty Robbins album.

Ian Tyson, a Canadian singer and songwriter, has recorded a number of Western Music albums over a nearly 50 year career as an artist. Initially he cut more folk music themed with Sylvia Tyson. As the years passed, Ian Tyson moved into a Western Music style. and has had a successful recording career. Leavin' Cheyenne, featured in this set, is pulled from Tyson's 1983 album Old Corrals and Sagebrush. Tyson is a rancher by trade when he is not touring.

Patsy Montana, a pioneer female Western Music performer, and the scion of the famous Montana family, who have ridden in every Rose Bowl parade for decades, contributes her composition I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart, the first million selling record by a female performer in Western Music. Her group, The Prairie Ramblers, were mainstays on clear channel radio station WLS for nearly 20 years.

Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, an early Western Music group, had a long and fruitful recording career. On this first disc of this set, they sing the Tin Pan Alley standard Ragtime Cowboy Joe. The tune is closely identified with Western Music, although it is derivative of early Western Music recordings. In the Seventies in San Francisco, members of several rock groups formed the New Riders of the Purple Sage in tribute to the original group.

Riders In the Sky, a modern Western band, are a trio of Western Music performer's, who were quite well known in the 1990s and 2000s. They are very popular with fans of modern Western Music. On this cd, they offer Ride Cowboys Ride, a tune co-written with Rex Allen Jr.

The late Frankie Laine and his group, the Muleskinners, are represented here on this disc with the tune Mule Train. The recording, which dates from 1949, is a Western Music standard,  and has been covered by many other artists. Mr. Laine performed well into his nineties, keeping the music alive.

Marty Robbins is also represented in this cd of Western songs by The Strawberry Roan. The song is a tribute to a horse that was never successfully ridden, despite many attempts. The Western rodeo, a series of events intended to tap into the various skills used by horse wrangled on ranches.

Riders In the Sky have a second song placed on this Western Music anthology entitled The Line Rider. On larger ranches, the job of riding the barbed wire fences that keep cattle in and rustlers out of huge parcels of range that are used to let cattle graze. This type of raising cattle has become less used with the advent of feedlot. During cattle drives, line riders kept the herd moving.

Rex Allen Sr. appears on this disc singing the Western classic The Last Roundup. The tune was written by the well known Billy Hill. Perhaps people who are not familiar with Western Music know Rex Allen Sr. best as the deep voiced narrator of numerous Disney nature films.

Tex Ritter appears a second time on this anthology of Western Music with the standard The Wayward Wind. This tune has been placed in numerous motion pictures to help viewers to comprehend the vast and diverse vistas and lands of the American West. On many Western highways, it is still possible to travel hundreds of miles without passing through but few communities, many of them sparsely populated,  the rest being ghost towns.

Completing this sampling of Western Music standards is the duo of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing their theme song, Happy Trails to You. There are very few of the Baby Boomers after World War 2 who were not familiar with these ambassadors of the American West. Simply put, the couple were, along with Gene Autry, the best known and familiar Western Music performers of the post World War 2 era.

This collection of Western artists can be found most easily on YouTube. The four cd set is out of print, and pricey when it can be found. Kudos to the folks at Rhino who assembled this set. The article covering the second cd from the set will be focusing on the music of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Copyright 2018 by Peter Reum 
All Rights Reserved