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Author Archives: themesongsteve

I Won’t Grow Up

I Won’t Grow Up

I didn’t get married until I was almost thirty. I had put it off for years, knowing I wasn’t ready to be a mature adult family man. I felt that, approaching thirty, it was past time for me to shake off the childish things, but the fact is, I still wasn’t ready. I was a musician, playing in bars, drinking too much, hoping for fame and acclaim as a singer-songwriter.

I was 31 when my first daughter was born, and still I was unsuited for parenting. I got a straight job but continued to play music in bars. My daughter made it through and is now thriving, but that first marriage didn’t survive. I’m trying to make up for that now, by being a late-blooming good grandpa. Still playing music, though.

Jonathan plays Dallas

Jonathan plays Dallas

“Leprechaun Rock and Roll” Jonathan Richman, right out of the box with his group The Modern Lovers, was a pre-punk sensation, an influence to the punk movement that grew up just after the debut album’s release. But by the time the punkers were seizing the Zeitgeist, Jonathan had moved on. His 1977 album Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers was a big step away from the punk ethos and sound. The songs were still simple and guitar-based, but the guitar was acoustic and the vocals, rather than raw and menacing, were naïve and playful. In addition to warbling his own songs, like “Ice Cream Man,” “Leprechaun Rock and Roll,” and “Dodge Veg-O-Matic,” Jonathan even covered “The Wheels on the Bus.” He is the quintessential arrested adolescent, has only become more so over time, and has maintained a loyal following of those who prize the naïve sense of wonder and the carefree spirit that come across in his songs.

One of the best shows I ever saw was Jonathan Richman’s performance, backed by his long-suffering sidekick, drummer Tommy Larkins, at a small Dallas club. The main reason this show stands out is undoubtedly that I attended with my oldest daughter, who was thirty years old at the time. See, I had played the Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers album for her and my youngest daughter when they were little, and the three of us sang and danced along with it. We had our moves and backup parts down, and still occasionally put on Jonathan and regress together.

So there was that history, even though Jonathan only played one song from the album at the show. But there was also this fascinating display of naivety as Richman strummed his nylon-string guitar, sang his fanciful lyrics, and riffed as things popped into his head. Tommy dutifully followed his bandleader’s fits and starts, slowdowns and speedups, and transitions into different keys or even completely different songs. Jonathan Richman really does seem free of any of the boundaries his performer peers operate inside. Is it all an act? I really don’t know. I don’t want to know. Let my daughter and me believe Jonathan Richman’s just a perpetual kid finding his way, musically, through the dangerous world.

 pop pop

“I Won’t Grow Up” This song was a standout from the 1954 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It was written by Carolyn Leigh and Mark “Moose” Charlap (now there’s a nickname that he probably wanted to outgrow). Of course, it was a grown woman, Mary Martin—age 40, who played Peter and sang about refusing to become a man with a moustache. (Safe bet for Ms. Martin.)

A favorite version of the song is also by a grown woman, Rickie Lee Jones, on her charming covers album Pop Pop, which seems to be themed around a return to innocence, with its cover taken from a kiddie novelty.

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley

“Dat Dere” Another playful song on RLJ’s Pop Pop is her take on the 1960 jazz tune by Bobby Timmons. Oscar Brown, Jr., wrote the baby-talk lyrics that Rickie Lee slides into so naturally. Timmons also wrote “Dis Here,” and both songs were a big part of Cannonball Adderley’s rise as a soul-jazz pioneer.

I marvel at the fluidity of “Dat Dere”: Its instrumental versions, especially Cannonball’s, are swaggery and hip. Add in Brown’s child’s-point-of-view lyrics (“And mommy, can I have dat big elep’ant ober dere?”), and the character of the song changes completely. And yet, I love it equally with and without the words.

beach b

“When I Grow Up” The mere fact that The Beach Boys have been saddled with their youthful moniker well into their dotage is noteworthy. They ditched the surfer shirts when they went through their hippie phase and never went back, but every audience member at their shows regresses several decades—a roomful of boys and girls who are on the AARP subscription list.

Brian Wilson was already twenty-two when he wrote this song of angst about entering adulthood. “Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?” And now, in his seventies, he’s still like a child, a spacey child who gets lost in daydreams, who needs to be handled by a grownup.

tmbg

“Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” They Might Be Giants: even the name is defiantly juvenile. TMBG is two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, who met in high school. They recorded cassettes in the early-to-mid-eighties, along with songs for their popular “Dial-a-Song” service (call the number, get an original song).

These guys are like class clowns, recording their wacky songs like a cutup throws his jokes out there, hoping for a reaction. Some TMBG songs fall flat, just like some of the class clown’s gags always do, but like the jokes, the songs are short; if one doesn’t grab you, you move on to the next track. They pull off some jejunity: “We Want a Rock” is an obvious pun, but works; “The Mesopotamians” is a “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees”-style band song for a band of, yes, Mesopotamians; “James K. Polk” is a cute history lesson with a theremin ride. A bonus track on the reissue of their first and second albums features a recording of a group of schoolkids singing “Particle Man.”

Great Song Titles: In addition to “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” their song titles include “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” “Rabid Child,” and “Hide Away, Folk Family.”

Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street

There have been many lively, colorful streets lauded in popular song. I’ve walked a few of them, including Beale Street and Basin Street, mentioned below; New York’s Broadway; and San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury.

“Kansas City” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, but it was in 1959 that Wilbert Harrison made it a huge hit. It’s his version that has lasted, although many have recorded it since (and every bar band in America has had it in their repertoire for more than fifty years).

Alas, Kansas City’s landmark 12th Street and Vine is only marked by a lonely street sign. It has been subsumed by a housing development. The music hub was actually 18th and Vine, a recognized jazz destination for years. It is now mostly museums.

beale

“Beale Street Blues” W.C. Handy was not so much a songwriter as a translator of black culture, a synthesizer of others’ music and words into hit songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” that resonated with Americans, black and white, in St. Louis and Memphis or in New York or Phoenix. His world was the black community entered around Memphis’s Beale Street, a place Preston Lauterbach, in his book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, describes as “a nexus of black culture and power…unlike anyplace else in the world.”

Handy extracted the music for “Beale Street Blues” from the sounds he overheard, walking on Beale Street, of a saloon’s pianist playing away on his twelve-hour shift. He crafted the lyrics by pulling from the language he heard on Beale Street corners, and in its bars, boarding houses, and shops.

He extols this landmark Memphis street above all others: “I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway / Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay / I’ve strolled the Prado, gambled on the Bourse / But take my advice, friends, and see Beale Street first.”

handy satch

Louis Armstrong recorded a W.C. Handy tribute album shortly before Handy’s death, and it’s this album’s version of “Beale Street Blues,” played and sung with affection by a New Orleanian, that I love best.

“Basin Street Blues” Armstrong also covered, many times, this song of a notable street in his hometown. Written in 1926 by Spencer Williams, it was recorded two years later by Satch, and has been recorded thousands of times since, by Dixieland bands, pop vocalists, and mainstream jazzers.

jelly

Basin Street was the nexus of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. I look at the photographs of Storyville whores taken in the early 20th century by E.J. Bellocq and try to imagine what daily (or nightly) life was like there and then. Reading about Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll, I imagine myself leaning over the piano as he entertains the habitués of the brothel, the working girls and the rough and tough characters who provided them with a living.

On visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve walked around the area that Storyville occupied. It is long gone, but nearly everywhere in the heart of that city there had still been some traces of the past in the brightly painted shotgun houses and the corner package stores. But I’m afraid that may not continue to be the case. In all of the ten-years-after-Katrina stories I’ve read, the prevailing observation is that the neighborhoods of New Orleans, from Treme to Bywater, are being gentrified. The “City that Care Forgot” is now a magnet for tech dot-com developers and hipster chic boutiquers. It’s giving me the Basin Street blues.

beat

“Dancing in the Street” A whole book about one pop song? It’s happened before, with the delightful book Louie, Louie. Mark Kurlansky devoted a volume called Ready for a Brand New Beat to the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street.” It is as worthy of being the subject of a book as any pop song. It’s got a relentless “brand new beat,” it features Martha’s glistening vocals, and it signifies a time of change. It has a strong but unmenacing message that the younger generation is movin’ in.

My original, well-worn copy

My original, well-worn copy

“Street Fighting Man” The Stones take up the message where Martha and the Vandellas left off. No more dancing—it’s time for fighting in the streets. This is one song that blew my young mind when I first heard it. I was a Rolling Stones fan, but leaned toward The Beatles. And then I bought the Beggar’s Banquet album and my mind was opened up to the rough stuff. Keith Richards’ ringing guitar and Mick Jagger’s stinging vocals cut right through me. And it was a protest song I could belt along with, kidding myself that I was in some way a part of this big societal change taking place. I was just a kid in the suburbs. I wasn’t fighting or dancing in my street. I was playing tag and singing four-part harmony in my street. And in the house early on school nights.

bruce

Honorable Mentions: The Lonely Street of “Heartbreak Hotel”; the slinky harpsichorded mystery of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “Love Street”; the many Bruce Springsteen song-stories of New Jersey streets, most notably “Born to Run”; the cowboy classic “Streets of Laredo,” with the parody verse: “You can see by my outfit that I am a cowboy / If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”

Your Mother Should Know

Your Mother Should Know

I miss my mom. She died five years ago, and I’m still working through it. I have a lot of guilt about all the things I could’ve said and done before she was gone. But she had a very good life and seemed to be happy with the way things turned out for her, and I have to believe she understood and forgave my failings as a son

Let’s look at a few sons’ musical tributes to moms.

bb king

“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” This little minute-and-a-half-long ditty opens Riley “B.B.” King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds album of 1970. It’s just B.B. on piano and vocals, and features the great one-liner “Nobody loves me but my mother and she might be jivin’ too.”

After that opener, B.B. is joined by a band that includes another King, a most unlikely one—Carole—on piano on several tracks. Leon Russell does the keyboarding on the ones Ms. King sits out on. It’s a nice album, B.B. King’s favorite of his works, and capitalizes on the bluesman’s newfound popularity following the surprise hit “The Thrill is Gone.” The album is named for King’s official hometown (his birth certificate is reproduced on the inside jacket), but King says in the recent documentary The Life of Riley that he was actually born on a plantation outside of Itta Bena.

B.B.’s mother may have been jivin’ after all, since she left young Riley to be raised by her mother.

Mr. Mingus

Mr. Mingus

“Exactly Like You” This Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song comes from the same 1930 musical, Lew Leslie’s International Review, that featured “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The singer proclaims of his mama that she “meant me for someone exactly like you.” Now, that’s an ideal: mom’s choice.

It’s been recorded by many artists, including Frank Sinatra, but, again, my favorite is an instrumental: Charles Mingus interpolates “Exactly Like You” with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to perfection.

Dorothy Fields’ father Lew was an actor and theatrical producer, but her mother Rose was not enthusiastic about Dorothy going into show business, telling her and her siblings, “You children must be extra polite to strangers because your father’s an actor.”

“Your Mother Should Know” Paul McCartney’s light ‘n’ airy number that was included on the Magical Mystery Tour album is in the line of dance-hall nostalgia numbers that includes “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie.”

Paul’s mother Mary died in 1956, when he was fourteen. It was a connection Paul had early on with John, whose mother died when he was seventeen.

magical

“Mother ” John Lennon’s opener for John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, his “primal album” from 1970, is anything but light ‘n’ airy. He’s mad at his mother, and wants to let it out. “Mother,” he wails, “you had me, but I never had you.” John and Yoko had spent some time in therapy with Mr. Primal Scream, Arthur Janov. The album is raw and emotional, a world away from The Beatles’ slick productions. The band comprised Ringo Starr on drums and one of the many “fifth Beatles,” Klaus Voorman, on bass.

Many of the song titles are single words: “Remember,” “Isolation,” “God,” “Love.” They’re loose but not lax, and it remains among my all-time favorite albums. It was Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s choice in 1970 as Album of the Year.

My wife Sweets grew up with parents who spent several years wallowing in Arthur Janov and his primal scream theories. There was a lot of confrontation and yelling in the household, and Sweets and her two sisters couldn’t wait to flee the coop. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is not one of my wife’s favorites.

n young

“New Mama” “New Mama’s got a son in her eyes.”

Neil Young’s equivalent to Lennon’s primal album is Tonight’s the Night,” the anti-Harvest. Neil, in this tribute to fallen junkie music associates, is rough, occasionally out-of-tune, tequila-soaked, and fearless. Even the most low-fi of these songs is darkly beautiful, from bleary, drug-saturated “Tired Eyes” to the acoustic trippiness of “Albuquerque” and “New Mama,” which both sound like late-night-long-after-the-show CSNY sing-alongs, hoarse and coarse and lovely. Tonight’s the Night is another all-time favorite album.

Neil lived with his mother after his father left her.

duke

“Reminiscing in Tempo” For years, I sang Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” thinking it was a song Duke, who was very close to his mother, had written for her in his grief following her death. I later learned that wasn’t true—he wrote “Solitude” shortly before she died. Ellington biographer Terry Teachout says that the song Duke wrote while grief-stricken over his mother was actually the extended form “Reminiscing in Tempo.” It has no lyrics, but its music was inspired by mother Daisy. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Duke wrote of “Reminiscing in Tempo” that “every page of that particular manuscript was dotted with smears and unshapely marks caused by tears that had fallen.” This is a man who missed his mother.

Honorable Mention: Sonny Bono had the cheekiness to write a song for Cher to sing about their divorce. “Now how should I put this? I’ve got something to say / Your mother is staying, but I’m going away.” It worked! “You Better Sit Down, Kids” was a hit, and it’s the last Cher song I ever liked.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: On the other hand, there’s Helen Reddy’s song of mother-daughter solidarity, “You and Me Against the World.” I guess it’s not really too horrible a song, but Helen Reddy on the vocals pretty much automatically consigns it to the “no” pile.

Spotlight: Makin’ Whoopee

Spotlight: Makin’ Whoopee

Another spotlight, another song / Perhaps it’s not right, but is it wrong? / It ain’t Jurassic, but it’s a classic–it’s “Makin Whoopee.” From my blog post I Just Wanna Make Love to You. Video of Mr. Eddie Cantor, followed by the excerpt from the post.

“Makin’ whoopee” is such an antiquated term these days that it has come back around as an innocent way to refer to sex. (Hasn’t it? Or is it just me?) There were three hit versions of the song “Makin’ Whoopee” in 1929, most notably the version by Eddie Cantor, who sang it on Broadway in the show Whoopee. I imagine it was pretty titillating for audiences to hear back then, even if sung by a funny-looking, bug-eyed comedian. I do, however, think it could make a comeback with a verse updated for the younger set. (And just using the phrase “younger set,” I know, puts me way out of it.) It’d go something like this: “He sits alone and oversexed / He grabs the phone, sends her a text / She puts her book up / She wants a hookup / They’re makin’ whoopee.”

 

Spotlight: Carolina

Spotlight: Carolina

In the first of the series I wrote on women’s names, What’s Your Name?, I talked about the curious international history of a song about a lady named Carolina. I mentioned three versions of the song–all quite different. I’ve posted them here, starting with the Folkes Brothers original:

Now, here’s Shaggy’s hit version:

And, lastly, the version by Taraf de Haidouks:

Here’s the excerpt from my original post:

I recently made a discovery, upon listening again to the Romanian band Taraf de Haidouk’s 2001 album Band of Gypsies, that one song, “Carolina,” is a remake of a song from across the globe. The song is credited on the album to Gabi Voicila, but it’s actually a revved-up version of a song recorded in Jamaica in 1964 by The Folkes Brothers as “Oh Carolina,” one of the first ska/reggae songs. The original has a nice folky-Caribbean feel, which Shaggy, in 1993, turned into a delightful groove for his first hit. The woman is Caro-lie-na in the Jamaican versions, and Caro-lee-na in the Romanian, but it’s the same song.

Taraf de Haidouks are the quintessential “band of gypsies,” known for their frenetic, exultant workouts that feature violin, flute, impassioned vocals, and, underpinning it all (and occasionally taking a tasty ride) is the cimbalom, the happiest of musical instruments. It’s an Eastern European relative of the hammer dulcimer. It’s kind of like the back-end of an open grand piano, on which the cimbalom player strikes the strings with a mallet. The result is spidery and shimmery and enchanting. With a cimbalom aboard, a song’s lyrics may be sung in a language I don’t understand, and may be about failed crops or the death of a loved one, but the music sounds gleeful, and makes me want to tap, clap, and dance.

At any rate, I love Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina.” When subjected to Shaggy’s hits from the early ‘00s (while driving my daughter to school), I’d thought of him as a boring rapper whose verses worsened those mediocre songs that his guest artists sang. But Shaggy’s in control on “Oh Carolina.” I’ve reassessed Shaggy, due to that one song, which tops my running playlist. Groovy!

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

I’m as big a reader as I am a music-listener. I have worked for a book company for thirty years, and for years before that in libraries, at the same time performing music as often as I could. Downtime has almost always involved reading or listening to music. Quite often, I’m reading about music, despite Martin Mull’s awkward but oft-quoted assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Sure, it helps to have heard the music being referred to in an essay or review or blog post, but it’s nice to think that a reader may be encouraged to explore unfamiliar music further. And sharing thoughts on music with others who’ve reacted to the same music in their own way is one of the best ways I know of to waste time.

But what, then, of songs about books? That would seem to be an even worse idea than books about songs, but there have been some great songs about books, and I would like to do a little architectural dancing about a few of my favorites.

ella 2

“I Could Write a Book” This is one of the many gems in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart catalogue. The song was written for the 1940 show Pal Joey, and was notably covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her Rodgers & Hart “songbook album.”

Richard Rodgers wrote numerous gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, sidestepping the demands of imperious producers and temperamental stars. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. It truly is incredible that Rodgers (and, yes, his brilliant, besotted lyricist Lorenz Hart) created so many songs that have endured.

The music man and the librarian

The music man and the librarian

“Marian the Librarian”   It took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and his mentor, Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser, urged him on.

Robert Preston, as Music Man (and con man) Harold Hill, falls for the town librarian, played on Broadway in 1957 by Barbara Cook (who won a Tony for her performance) and in the hit ’62 movie by Shirley Jones, later the matriarch of The Partridge Family. Hill pitches woo by singing “Ma-a-a-arian, Madame Libra-a-a-arian,” proving once again that book people have an irresistible allure.

My 45 has a misprinted title

My 45 has a misprinted title

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” I remember hearing this almost overpowering song on the radio when it came out in 1962. It blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“”Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled.

It’s one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write, and one of the few without the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it sits right up there with his best.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”   Sting was reflecting on his pre-rockstar days as a teacher when he wrote “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which became a #10 US hit in 1980. He was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, referring specifically to “that book by Nabokov” in the song’s lyrics. Sting insists that, although he was attracted to some of his young students back in the day, this song of a teacher’s affair with a pupil was not autobiographical.

The single’s B-side, “Friends,” written by Police guitarist Andy Summers, was reportedly inspired by another book, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Wuthering Heights” Another English pop singer wrote a song based on Emily Bronte’s only novel. “Wuthering Heights” was Kate Bush’s debut single and went all the way to #1 in England—although it didn’t do so well in the US. I prefer the version by The Puppini Sisters, a three-part close-harmony group. They’re from England, too, but they modeled themselves on The Andrews Sisters and my own favorites, The Boswell Sisters. They give Catherine and Heathcliff’s story a little swingy bounce, which, I think, is what it’s always needed.

1984

“1984” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired many songwriters. David Bowie’s “1984” came out a decade before the year in question, while Spirit’s got in fifteen years ahead. Bowie wrote “1984” and other songs, including “Big Brother,” for a never-produced musical based on the book. Stevie Wonder had written and recorded his own “Big Brother” in 1972. Many other pop songs of that era, of course, covered themes of government surveillance and power over the masses. And the hits just keep on comin’.

“Book of Love” Last but not least is this doo-wop ditty by The Monotones. I missed it when it came out in 1957, but it became a favorite when it was included in the movie American Graffiti. Great group name, but The Monotones were not monotonous at all.

love

Honorable Mentions: Love’s “My Little Red Book” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Duke Ellington’s “My Little Brown Book” (written by Billy Strayhorn); “Every Day I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; Dylan’s original or The Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: There are a couple of diary songs that I got enough of quick. Bread’s “Diary,” with its twist ending, was clever, but in a Hallmark Hall of Fame way. The Moody Blues’ “Dear Diary” is one I skipped back when I was playing the album it’s on. Ray Thomas’s vocals were never up to the standard of Hayward or Lodge, and the Leslie effects are annoying.

Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

It is certainly true that as one gets older, one tends to notice things like birds more; however, I’m still unable to identify more than a couple or three by sight or sound. I do plan to work on that. I’m much better at identifying the sounds of the many groups of the fifties that were named after birds: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Crows.

But this post is not about bird groups. It’s about songs of birds—birds of different colors.

“Bye-Bye, Blackbird” Dorothy Field and Jimmy McHugh wrote “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” in 1928, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s been recorded many times over the years, but the Mills Brothers’ version flies the highest.

The song’s a staple of my senior-center gigs. There’s a line those of us who perform at senior centers say about playing the Alzheimer’s facilities: “You only really have to know one song.” The Alzheimer’s residents often can’t remember what they’d done for a living day after day for years. But a few always know all of the song lyrics, and sing along, word for word. I’ve even had lyrics corrected by them a few times: “It’s ‘quiet place’ before ‘fireplace,’ not ‘fireplace’ then ‘quiet place.’” I had wondered whether one of them even belonged in the place, until I saw her with her son and his wife. She nodded and smiled as they introduced themselves.

The residents always like to hear “Bye-Bye, Blackbird,” and are lively, relatively speaking, when I play it. Once, I did it as my big finish: “Blackbird, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye!” I hit a final chord, and was about to say bye-bye when a resident leaned back in his chair as I passed and asked, “Say, fella, do you know “Bye-Bye, Blackbird”?

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

“Yellow Bird” The Mills Brothers recorded another classic colorful-bird song, “Yellow Bird.” It is smooth and soothing–and sometimes smooth and soothing is just what one needs.

“Blackbird” Paul McCartney’s song is one of his greatest: a lyric dedicated to the Civil Rights movement accompanied by beautiful picked-guitar lines that young, budding guitarists like me all learned to play back in the day. (And, according to my guitar-teacher son-in-law, it’s still on his young students’ radar.)

Paul (and wife Linda) also had a pretty “Bluebird,” which ended up on Wings’ Band on the Run album.

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

“Bluebird” Buffalo Springfield packed a lot of fine work into their three albums. There was just too much creativity under one roof to keep it together. It’s hard to pick favorites, but two top candidates could both fall into the bird song category.

Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” is, I think, his best contribution to Buffalo Springfield. It’s bright and accessible. There are several verses in a rock beat, peppered with Stills’ lead guitar, and then a super-compressed major seventh chord that rings. Then there’s a pause, after which a banjo enters, and the song is recommenced in a gentler, more rural setting. At the other end of the Springfield’s range was Neil Young’s gorgeous duet with strings, “Expecting to Fly.”

Also, on After the Goldrush, his third solo album, another lovely song, “Birds,” talks of flight and feathers. “Danger Bird,” from Neil’s Zuma, is more ominous, a Crazy Horse electrified ballad.

The Wolf in the henhouse

“The Red Rooster” The great Howlin’ Wolf bellowed this blues number in 1961. Wolf never had any trouble with authenticity—he was the rill thang, y’all. But I think he throws himself into this song because he’s not just singing about the red rooster—he is the red rooster, baby. One of many Howlin’ Wolf delights I have to hear every so often.

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

“Red Hen Hop” Charlie and Ira Louvin’s stock-in-trade were sweet ‘n’ sentimental waltzes, melodramatic (but still sweet) gospel songs, and “tragic songs of life” (those were sweet, too), which was the title of one of their albums. So how did this boogie-woogiein’ number make it onto a Louvin Brothers album? No telling, but it’s quite enjoyable to hear the Brothers rock out a little bit about the red hen that Wolf’s red rooster’s makin’ hop.

“When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” Louis Armstrong did the definitive version of this cheerful song. When I was playing at a hospital, an aide asked if I’d sing a happy song for a cancer patient, a grizzled Vietnam vet. I chose this one, and we both ended up teary-eyed by the end of it. I hope he made it through.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Honorable Mentions: There are some great songs of birds, like “Expecting to Fly,” that do not mention the color of the bird. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is one. Often, when record nerds are playing “favorite albums of all time,” they forbid greatest hits anthologies. I can understand that—it’s a different type of album, since the artist didn’t conceive of its songs as part of a single work. But some collections, like the Legends anthology of Bob Marley masterpieces, are just too good to omit. One could say that a Bob Marley best-of isn’t necessary, because so many of his albums are listenable from beginning to end. That’s true of the great Exodus album, fully half of which, including “Three Little Birds,” is duplicated on Legends. Exodus was, in fact, named by Time magazine Best Album of the 20th Century. So, for the record nerds who make greatest hits albums ineligible for top-album lists, I’ll readily substitute Exodus for Legends.

Dennis Wilson’s song “Little Bird,” from the Beach Boys album Friends, doesn’t sound like a Dennis song—it sounds like a Brian song. I figure big bro Bri had a big hand in it, at least in the vocal harmony arrangement and key modulations. It’s short and sweet and remains a favorite from this favorite album.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: We have mentioned nice songs of black, blue, red, and yellow birds. But It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” seemed stuffy and drippy to me even back when I was a young and impressionable hippie wannabe. I can’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I’m an old and impressionable hippie wannabe. And that name is a precursor to later bad band names that are statements: Gene Loves Jezebel, Jimmy Hates Jazz, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah…

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