Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another earworm, forgotten lyrics and the Internet, and possibly humming

Despite the fact that I'm currently in Bhopal, India, immersed in the world of Hindustani classical music, I woke up this morning with an old widely known folk song, sung on a recording by Peggy Seeger from my college days in the early 1060's, running in an unstoppable loop through my brain:

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler
I'm along way from home
And if you don't like me
You can leave me alone

I didn't think too much about it (earworms--see my earlier postings in November and earlier in September on the subject--often function at a level barely above consciousness) until, when we were downstairs in the Dhrupad Sansthan making our morning coffee, my wife Shubha Sankaran commented on the fact that I was humming--something she found very unusual-- and asked me what the tune was.

I proceeded to sing the above lyrics, which I assume are from the first verse to the widely known folk song, but for the life of me, I could remember no more than another line

My horses ain't hungry
They won't eat your hay. . . .

And that was as far as I could go. But I knew that I could return to our room and, assuming the electricity was still on (we have "load shedding"--i.e., deliberate power outages here at least twice a day for several hours), I could fire up my computer, hope that the Internet connection was at something faster than the glacial speed at which it often functions, and check to see what the rest of the song was, undoubtedly in multiple versions, the folk process being what it is.

First, I decided to try Peggy's Website, in hopes there might be some reference to the song there. But the only thing that came up for "I'm a Rambler" was a 45 second MP3 beginning to a song by the late Ewan MacColl, the iconic folklorist and singer, and Peggy's longtime companion and subsequent husband; the introductory lyrics might have been leading up to a chorus of "I'm a rambler . . . . " but then the clip faded out.

When I typed in "My horses ain't hungry", a sound clip of a totally different song by brother Mike Seeger's distinctive voice came up, and still no "I'm a rambler".

In short, nothing on Peggy's Web page.

Next step was a Google advanced search for "I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler" which came up with 11,600 hits!

The first was on a Website called sniff.numachi.com--an odd title, to be sure, but it did provide a set of lyrics, as well as simple staff notation for a related song--though I didn't remember in Peggy Seeger's recording the very frequent mentions of whiskey in the online version.

The third primary link was to a YouTube version by "Jasper Coal at Gabel's Square on St. Patricks Day. Sorry 'bout the lighting"--which accounts for the whiskey dominance in the first set of Web lyrics; the fact that the performance is barely visible, obviously in a dark pub, does not detract from the Irish high spirits of the song itself.

The fourth primary link was to Bob Dylan's Website with his own set of lyrics, which didn't mention whiskey at all, but did retains the general sense of melancholy that I associate with my remembered version.

So I decided next to add Peggy's name to the Google search,

Finally I typed in ["I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler" "Peggy Seeger" lyrics] on Google, which brought up eight links. The first- "Folk Music - An Index to Recorded Resources" has been compiled by uber-librarian Jane Keefer, and was revealed to be an extraordinary resource: an online concordance of recorded performances of thousands of folk songs by hundreds of artists. This link, impressive as it was, was simply a sub-link to the even more comprehensive www.ibiblio.org, an online bibliographic database of mind-boggling scope! However, the citations to the recordings did not include lyrics.

Trying a range of various combined search phrases, some including Peggy or "Peggy Seeger" , some not--sometimes including "my horses ain't hungry, they won't eat your hay"--but the various combination yielded no results. I'll simply have to wait until I get home to Washington to listen to Peggy's recording, and hear the rest of the lyrics that I've now forgotten.

For it seems that the broad folk idiom, without the benefit of copyright, and with its myriad substitutions and permutations of stock phrases, lacks the consistency and specificity of lyrics in current popular and rock music. I've found that when I hear a captivating fragment of a current pop or rock song on the radio, or as background to a television drama, I can usually trace the song and the artist (again, my obsession with taxonomy, or identification and classification--see my earlier post) by typing in a sequence of the words that I remember. For example, some time ago I heard a song with the phrase--"ate a slice of wonder bread", which in a Google advanced search took me to 94,000 links, mostly for the memorable song by Regina Spektor, a young Russia-born singer currently enjoying great success.

As for the humming, while we were making our coffee this morning, one of the Sansthan students came down, and he too was humming. As we exchanged humming references, I recalled that when I was a child I often used to hum when I was eating--an idiosyncrasy upon which my family often commented, saying that I certainly appeared to be happy. I realized that I very rarely hum now, and I wonder why. I'll reflect on that question for some time, and will leave to a later post a discussion of when and why people hum, and for that matter, why they whistle.

Probably time to leave this line of inquiry for the moment--load shedding coming up at any time now--but back soon with another fascinating Google lyric search that I conducted as part of celebrating the song traditions of my family . . . .

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Remembering Elvis - 2

As noted in the previous post, VOA music reports in the first two weeks of 2010 focused on what would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, as well as the deaths of Sandro, known as the Argentinian Elvis, and the hugely popular Teddy Pendergrass.

Doug Levine produced an extensive radio feature on two major celebrations conducted in observance of Elvis' birth, which took place on 8 January 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. The first was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, where two days of special ceremonies, "75 Years of Elvis", will honor the legendary singer. Graceland, Elvis' longtime home in Memphis, Tennessee, and a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of admirers ever year, mounted a special commemoration entitled "From Tupelo to Memphis."

VOA also carried a news report on Presley's grandchildren, Riley Keough (left), and her brother, Benjamin (right), cutting an enormous birthday cake in a special ceremony presided over by Presley's widow, Priscilla.

And Phil Mercer reports on the annual Elvis Festival in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, with an expected attendance of 10,000 or more, with many dressing as Elvis or Priscilla. Mercer says that "the Parkes festival began in a small restaurant more than 15 years ago . . . [and] has grown into a five-day event that includes dozens of concerts and look-a-like competitions as well as an Elvis-themed gospel church service and a street parade."

On an oddly related note, a VOA news item reports that "the Argentinian Elvis", the singer and film star born as Roberto Sánchez but popularly known as "Sandro", died on 4 January at the age of 64 in the city of Mendoza, Argentina, from complications following surgery. Further details may be found in obituaries in The Christian Science Monitor, which observes whimsically in its headline that "Argentina's 'Elvis' Sandro has left the casa", referring to the popular catch phrase, Elvis has left the building", that originated at Elvis concerts to prevent overenthusiastic fans from remaining in the concert hall in hopes of an encore; The Independent, which mentions that Sandro "was the first Latin singer to play Madison Square Garden and one of the first rock-and-roll singers to be greeted on stage with a barrage of flying underwear"; and The New York Times, which reports that as lead guitarist for the popular band Los de Fuego, during one performance in the early 1960's, "when the group’s lead singer lost his voice. . . . Sánchez relinquished his guitar, took over singing duties and began dancing to the rock rhythm. The crowd went wild." The superstar's passing was mourned by tens of thousands of admirers as he lay in state for 24 hours, and as his hearse passed through the city of Buenos Aires. Several videos of his performance of "Rosa, Rosa" (among other songs), in full Elvisian garb, confirms the comparison, and can be seen on YouTube.

Finally, Doug Levine produced an obituary on Teddy Pendergrass, one of the leading singers of Soul Music, who died in Philadelphia on 14 January at the age of 59. Pendergrass' career was noteworthy for the fact that, despite a near-fatal automobile accident in 1982 in which he was paralyzed from the waist down, Pendergrass returned to perform in a wheelchair in a continuation of his previous success. In addition to his dozens of recordings, he released his autobiography, entitled Truly Blessed, in 1998.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering Elvis - 1

VOA music features in the first two weeks of 2010 focused on the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth on 8 January in Tupelo, Missisippi, as well as the deaths of two prominent singers, one of them known as the Argentinian Elvis.

But before proceeding to these stories in a subsequent entry, I'd like to share a brief musical reminiscence. (Note: many of the songs mentioned below may be found in various versions on YouTube.)

As a teenager growing up in Denver, Colorado, I used to listen evenings and weekends to the local popular music stations, which in 1955 had featured such #1 national hits (many of which I still have on much-loved and badly scratched 7-inch 45 rpm records, the dominant medium of the day for pop music) as Pat Boone's cover version of Fats Domino's "Aint That a Shame"; "Autumn Leaves", by Roger Williams in a piano and orchestral rendition of the 1945 French classic, with no vocals; the bucolic "Ballad Of Davy Crockett" by actor/vocalist Bill Hayes; "Hearts Of Stone" by the Fontane Sisters, in a cover of an earlier Rhythm and Blues (African American) hit; "Learnin' the Blues " by Frank Sinatra; "Let Me Go, Lover!" by Joan Weber; "Memories Are Made Of This" by Dean Martin; "Sixteen Tons" by "Tennessee" Ernie Ford; and "Unchained Melody" by Les Baxter and His Orchestra and Chorus.

The last, in fact, figured with particular prominence in my personal internal soundtrack, during one long, hot summer, as a dark ballad capturing the essence of my fierce and unrequited crush on one of my classmates, Janet Gilchrist (hello, Janet, wherever you are.) For there was something primal about the effect that many of these and other hits of the period had on the psyche, and the soul, of a young adolescent. Even sitting here in Bhopal, India, in an unheated and tube-light-illuminated room on a cold winter's night, the mere reading of the titles of some of these songs--"The Breeze and I" (sung by by Caterina Valente, and based on Ernesto Lecuona's "Andalucia"); "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine?)" (by The Penguins, in a then rare instance of the first hit version of a mainstream song being recorded by a Rhythm and Blues, and hence African American--as opposed to white--artist or group); and of course "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" (by The Four Aces, and the theme song for a popular film of the same title), with its unforgettable "In the morning mist, two lovers kissed, and the world stood still . . . . "--opens up a yawning chasm of nostalgia for the early days when I was struggling to understand the confusing and sometimes heart-wrenching experience of young love, with the melodies and words still sounding, even churning, in my brain after 55 years.

But it was my first hearing of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" that literally catapulted me into an utterly new musical world. I was cleaning out and sweeping the two-car garage in back of my Denver home one of my regular chores), when that song began to play on the small portable radio I'd plugged into a utlity socket. The song was like nothing I'd ever heard, and I must have stood, paralyzed after the first few seconds, broom in hand, listening, just listening, transfixed by sounds that seemed to come from another reality perhaps just around the corner, or perhaps from an entirely new universe of feelings as yet undiscovered. The ethnomusicologist in me now can analyze the musical elements--many from the African-American popular music of the day, but many from Elvis' own impenetrable soul and individuality--but as a lad, I was blessed with an experiential epiphany of experiencing "the other", that even today, shifts and reshapes itself like a spiritual and emotional apparition--both auditory and visual--in the very center of my being.

The subsequent appearance of "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets" was the only other song of the period that came close to shaking viscerally the foundations of my young reality, and this was due in large part to the appearance of the song as the theme song in the movie of the same title--a classic portrayal of teenage rebellion, in the stark idiom of black and white.

No, it was Elvis, and Heartbreak Hotel, that brought me, 13 years old, to the shores of the first of many oceans of wondrous new music.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The musical power of rain: the Malhar ragas

4:44 am in Bhopal, awakening to the sound of unseasonable rain. It is extremely rare in central and norther India for rain to occur outside the monsoon season, yet tonight I awakened to--can it be, through the closed glass windows and the brick-and-concrete walls surrounding us that I seem to hear, lifting me gently from my sleep--the unmistakable misting sound of rain?

Fumbling for the flashlight--no bedside lamp in our current digs--I get up to open the door to the veranda outside, to find myself experiencing a mystical and miraculous sound, feeling the soft moisture against my face, seeing a faint blurring in the space between me and the few lights burning out here in the countryside: rain in the central plains of India in January!

No thunder yet--that came some minutes later. But I have a fierce urge to sit down with my sitar, and play Mian ki Malhar, one of the magically evocative ragas of India's rainy season. The emotional effect of rain, of the monsoon, in this part of the world cannot be imagined by those for whom rain is a sporadic but at least relatively regular phenomenon that may be dramatic in its intensity--thunderstorm alerts, flood warnings; gut-wrenching thunder explosions unnervingly near, and of course, the drama of lightning--but rarely, at least in most of America, a culmination of months of anticipation.

In India, the monsoon and its rains counterbalances the long dry spells, with inexorably rising temperatures in most of northern and landlocked India, towards the definitively hellish summer heat, which in some places can reach a relentless 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The gradual buildup of the heat as summer moves in has, always, at its heart the anticipation of the late summer monsoon, bursting for the first time like a dam breaking, both emotionally as well as physically. Suspense, along with debilitating heat fatigue, increases over the early and midsummer weeks to a pitch incomprehensible to those outside the monsoon area. And when that most welcome of seasons does break, it is as though the whole of a nation, or more, the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of a multinational region, are freed to engage in a collective Dionysian celebration.

It's late, and I should not disturb those sleeping nearby with the piercing sounds of my sitar. And I should wait until the monsoon arrives in the forthcoming summer to engage in a specifically musical discussion of the attributes of the Malhar family of ragas--those of the rainy season.

But I am moved now to share my own experience in my first home city of Washington (Bhopal having become already a second home), some years ago, when an evening thunderstorm burst a truly monsoon intensity; I ask the readers' indulgence, with a poem on the most wondrous phenomenon of rain that overtook me one summer night. . . .

miyan ki malhar – a monsoon raga
first summer
thunderstorm tonight
ah, the anticipation, the ominous clouds gathering
hours together, darkness looming, closing in
ecstasy silent electric cloud god laughter
finally flashing
across the entire sky
a long, hanging moment until
thunder, deepest of the deep
raking the very belly of us all

slowly at first, misting, occasional splatter, then
surges of blowing rain, then
the drench of ancient downpours

so many lost memoried India monsoon madnesses misting here now

just now
rain, raining down
glittering in streetlights splashing diamonds
onto asphalt streets of oh my, now, just now,
my own

the rain of grace--rehmatullah--softening the ghetto
smokedark nightlights radiant somehow in every rowhouse
shimmering in the windwaters
next door Thyra’s jewelled theft-proof
and waterproof
happy lights
strung in eternal uncelebrated holiday after holiday
cheerlessly festive
yet shining in determination to prevail
swaying in the storm wind
her windchimes swaying too, sounding in the
wind, the wind, the wind
as sweet subtle windspray whisps our faces, cool and fine
and the periodic cars hiss along the payment
then the lull of only the rain
raining down,
washing our caustic minds
our jaded souls
a deep breath of freshness tosses my forehead
teases my yet clamped nostrils
the trees singing in the gusts

oh would that Krishna were dancing here in his blueness
his calm ecstasy
with his ghostly gopis
giving us all, all of us
just now in this blowing, cleansing rain
on these magical Washington streets
the streets of oh this city of my heart

Brian Q. Silver
June 2001

Friday, January 1, 2010

A new decade in music

Today begins a new year, and a new decade in music. So much has happened in the past decade, that it is exciting to contemplate what the next ten years may bring, both in music itself and in related technical developments. More on this to come, because I am currently in Bhopal India, with as yet infrequent and brief--and very slow--access to the Internet.

But for the record, tonight will be the first of four nights of concerts at the Museum of Man (known officially as the "Indira Gandhi Rashtrivya Manav Sangrahalaya", in a festival called "Pratishruti", featuring performers of Indian classical music born outside of India--with my own item to be presented on the last night. The series is co-sponsored by the Dhrupad Sansthan, a gurukul (place of learning) run under the direction of the Gundecha Brothers, who are among the leading exponents of Dhrupad--the oldest form of classical Indian vocal music.

Tonight's artists will include Ken Zuckerman, a highly respected senior student of the late Ustad (maestro) Ali Akbar Khan, performing on the sarod; born in the U.S., Ken currently is based in Basil, Switzerland, where he runs a branch of the Ali Akbar College of Music.

From Japan, performing on the Indian santur (hammered dulcimer), will be Takahiro Arai, a disciple of Kashmir-born santur virtuoso Shivkumar Sharma, who has developed the Kashmiri santur into a full-fledged concert instrument for the performance of Hindustani classical music.

I hope to comment on their performances tomorrow.