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Trouble in Jingle Bell Square

bell-39024_960_720 I’ve written before about the controversy surrounding the authorship of “Jingle Bell Rock.” Here's an update.

Singer Bobby Helms and renowned session guitarist Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland maintained till their dying days that they wrote it but were denied songwriting royalties. (See my 2013 post, “Jingle Bell Robbery.”)

This week I spoke with Hank Garland’s younger brother Billy and heard for the first time about the threats against Hank's life when he began speaking out against the music publishing scams and overall corruption of the Nashville music business in the 50s. (Such corruption was not limited to Music City of course, but Nashville had its own “small-town” brand of it.)

According to Billy, the career-ending auto crash that Hank suffered at the wheel of his Chevy Nomad station wagon in 1961—and the many electro-shock treatments he received during his recovery—were all part of the fix to keep him quiet. (Hank believed a gunshot blew out his tire, an eyewitness saw a man nearby with a rifle, and photos of his damaged car show bullet holes in the window.) The story is captured—with some artistic license—in the 2008 independent movie, “Crazy,” starring Waylon Payne and Ali Larter. Meanwhile Bobby Helms, who also complained about lost royalties, had numerous threats against his career and never regained his stature as a recording star.


You say you want a revolution?

Ok, I admit this isn’t one of John Lennon’s more coherent tunes, but it does serve to get us into the discussion: “Revolution” is trending again.

Some use the term to describe what’s happening in the U.S. as Donald Trump prepares to take over as President in January. “Revolution” is defined as "a violent overthrow of government," but most people are using the term to mean a radical change in the governing system. The Prez-elect has used the term himself, leading many of his supporters to expect no less in the months ahead.

In the Presidential primaries earlier this year, Bernie Sanders was talking revolution too. His proposed revolution was from the Left, while Trump’s revolution is mostly from the Right, though much of the attention-deficited American electorate seems to have missed the polarity there.

At any rate, those voters from either side who feast on the revolution sauce seem to forget how the US system of government was designed to retard radical change, given the checks and balances built into the government and even into the larger “system.”


Rock & roll is back in business

under-1716852__480I guess it’s time to break my radio silence since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. It’s been a lot to wrap my little brain around. Nearly everyone I work with is experiencing some form of PESD. But Post Election Stress Disorder is treatable—and may even be curable with frequent exposure to this blog.

Being a rosy-cheeked optimist, I already see a silver lining in this: good times for rock & roll! Especially for bright, trenchant social commentary that the best songwriters are capable of in times of national crisis. In my last post I predicted that a Presidential election shock would trigger a renascence of rock as a true political force.

Looking back at the last era of disruptive social change—which we are on the cusp of once again—we had Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and many more to guide us through the choppy waters. These artists spoke out—in different ways—for peace, civil rights, women’s rights, the environment, or, fundamentally, the right to protest.

Speaking of which, crowds—even school children—started hitting the street in cities across America, hours after the election was decided. (I know what you’re thinking: why did it take so long?) They've been protesting not only the election results but random acts of violence against minorities—especially Muslims—that have been recently occurring (including a record-setting 300 hate crimes in the last week).

Now, I believe in giving people a chance, but in this case I’d have to extend that to a President elect whose campaign was steeped in bigotry, xenophobia, nativism, misogyny, and islamophobia. Yet Donald Trump is impulsive and unpredictable enough to change course on a dime. He COULD propose Big Ideas that would actually be valuable and feasible and which COULD win approval from a fawning Congress. (A "yuge" stimulus program to rebuild roads and bridges would be one example.) A figure like Trump could conceivably blow open the ideological log jam and enable some new and productive alliances to be formed.

Unfortunately, as we go to press, Mr. Trump is already picking advisors from Crazy Town. His chief strategist will be a white nationalist, whose right-wing news site is unquestionably anti-Semitic and misogynist. With him guiding the next POTUS, it brings new meaning to the term "White House."


Talking to myself

interview-1714370__340I’ve been wanting to interview myself to get answers to burning questions about recent topics in the news, but as usual it’s been a challenge to find the time on both our busy schedules. So once again we had to use email. But we were able to complete the interview in less than a week!

Q: What did you think of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature?

A: Long overdue! His lyrical approach, beginning in the early to mid-60s, changed the whole business model of rock as I’ve alluded to here and here. Lyrics were no longer an afterthought in popular music after Dylan’s arrival in the mainstream. Hit songs could include political and poetic content for years afterwards. Top songwriters (e.g., John Lennon, Paul Simon) took full advantage of it.

Q: Are lyrics still as important?

A: Well, the percussive effect of words, more than their meaning, is absolutely critical to dance, which has been the major trend in popular music for a while. But plain-spoken street talk—including sexual candor—is also part of the equation now, a product of pop and hip-hop “hooking up.” There is artistry involved in that, which can be heard in many of the top singles now. Yet I miss the fact that a song with such surrealistic imagery as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” could once rule the charts and radio.

Q: How much longer will we be talking about radio?

A: The answer, my friend, is blowing in the airwaves.


Appreciating the Chess masters

Phil Chess, co-founder of the legendary Chess Records, passed away last week at the age of 95.

Phil and his late brother Leonard turned their small indie label in Chicago into a launching pad for top electric blues artists, and in the process helped pave the way for the development of early rock & roll.

The record company gave us blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Buddy Guy—but also Ike Turner, Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry (arguably the king of rock & roll).

But what intrigues me most about the story of Chess is how the brothers treated (or mistreated) many down-and-out blues singers. It’s a classic narrative that runs through the history of the music biz but especially the early days of blues, R&B, and rock & roll—where record labels, producers, managers, promoters, and agents have long been accused of exploiting their artists, many of them black.


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