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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…

Crying Time

Crying Time

I was a big fan of The Andy Griffith Show when I was growing up. Several episodes featured the bluegrass group The Dillards, who played the sons of mountain man Briscoe Darling. Darling daughter Charlene was sweet on Sheriff Taylor, which caused all sorts of problems. Her brothers never spoke, but they always sang a bluegrass number, with Briscoe on jug and Sheriff Ange on guitar.

My favorite bit was when they were about to sing the breakneck “Salty Dog” (“Let me be your salty dog or I won’t be your man at all / Honey, let me be your salty dog”) and sister Charlene says, “Don’t play that’n, Pa—it always makes me cry.”

So let me present a group of crying songs that aren’t weepers at all. None of these songs will cause anyone to shed a tear.

Bob

Bob

“No Woman No Cry” Bob Marley’s song even advises the listener “Don’t shed no tears,” because “everything’s gonna be all right.” It’s one of the best and best-known songs Marley ever did. He gave songwriting credit to a friend, Vincent Ford, who needed the royalties to keep a soup kitchen he was running afloat. So, for Ford and his beneficiaries, Bob made sure “everything’s gonna be all right.”

“You Don’t Have to Cry” Crosby and Nash think Stills remembers it wrong when he says the trio first harmonized at the home of Mama Cass Elliot. It all started at Joni Mitchell’s house, say Crosby, Nash, and Joni herself. Wherever it was, I assume Stephen Stills did get it right when he said that the first song they ever sang together was “You Don’t Have to Cry.” It later became one of the Stills jewels unveiled on Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s eponymous debut album. It’s medium tempo, and the bright blend of the CSN harmony machine keep it on the sunny side.

“I Cried for You” This standard had its writers, Arthur Freed, Gus Arnheim, and Abe Lyman, laughing all the way to the bank. It was a hit a couple of times in 1923, and in 1938 and ‘39, and again in ’42, and has been recorded by all the great vocalists, from Billie to Ray (see below). It is not a song of sorrow but rather a song of spite. “Now it’s your turn to cry for me.”

My favorite version is by Little Jimmy Scott, whose stock in trade was achingly slow tear-jerkers. On this one, he keeps the rhythm jumping, his sharp, clear voice playing just behind the beat. It’s bouncy and upbeat, as we cheer for Jimmy, who has gotten even with the lover who done him wrong.

George

George

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” This George Harrison white album classic was notably performed by an all-star lineup at a tribute to George after he died. It could have been a solemn interlude at a sorrowful event, but instead it’s an exhilarating performance. Tom Petty sang lead on the verses and ELO’s Jeff Lynne sang harmony on the verses and lead on the bridges; Steve Winwood played organ and George’s son Dhani played acoustic guitar. It’s all sounding nice enough, and then about two-thirds of the way through the song, a special guest guitarist comes forward. Eric Clapton? Nope, it’s Prince. He comes downstage and makes that guitar wail—and not gently either. It caps off the proceedings spectacularly, and if Dhani’s reaction is any indication, we’re thinking Mr. Harrison would’ve been quite pleased.

Other fine Beatles crying songs include “I’ll Cry Instead” and “Cry Baby Cry.”

Prince

Prince

“When Doves Cry” Prince had a smash with this standout from Purple Rain, probably the biggest rock hit ever to not have a bass on the track. None was needed, as the number is rhythmic, propulsive without it.

Dave Marsh called “When Doves Cry” possibly “the most influential single record of the eighties, establishing a new ground of rhythm and structure for contemporary hits.”

“Crying Time” Ray Charles put together not one but two concept albums chock full o’ weepers: Sweet and Sour Tears in 1964 and, two years later, Crying Time. I find it a lot of fun to listen to Ray Charles sing these melodies of misery (unlike the truly heartrending Sinatra concept albums of the fifties). They’re the usual entertaining artistry of this wizard, not at all bathetic or maudlin.

Ray

Ray

“Cry,” the dramatic song that was such a big hit for Johnny Ray, leads off the ’64 album. It’s joined by “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears out to Dry,” “Cry Me a River,” “I Cried for You,” and eight other teary tunes.

“Crying Time,” the country hit written by Buck Owens, opens the album of the same name, Ray’s first on his own label, Tangerine. Other crying-time songs on that album include “Tears” and “No Use Crying.”

Honorable Mention: There are so many outstanding crying songs that I am leaving out, but here are a few favorites: Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; Garnett Mimms’ (and later Janis Joplin’s) “Cry Baby”; and “Cry Me a River” and “My True Story,” both covered in other posts.

Roy

Roy

Quota Song: Dare I even say that the wondrous “Crying,” masterfully sung by Roy Orbison, is, for me, a quota song? It was a favorite for many years already when, while I was performing with a cover band, a regular customer told me he’d bump me some coke if I’d learn it. I did, he rewarded me, and then continued to do so every time I sang it. (This was in 1979, after all.) I went on to sing it as a feature number in other bands, and in shows, at parties—so many times that it lost its charm, lost its pathos, lost its power. I finally “retired it” a few years ago, after age and a respiratory condition made it too difficult for me to reliably sing it. After a little more time passes, maybe I’ll be able to listen to Roy sing it again.

I Shot the Sheriff

I Shot the Sheriff

At the Sunday acoustic jam circle I used to frequent, a fellow named Dollar Bill specialized in old folk and bluegrass numbers with novel lyrics. Many of the songs involved death, often murder—so many, in fact, that another jammer used to keep a body count as Dollar Bill sang. He introduced one song to the jam as a song about Greek hillbillies. It was a Mark Graham tune called “Oedipus Rex,” and it had a little down-home spin on the Greek tragedy: “Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Rex / Another sad story of death and sex / You killed your pa and you married your ma / They don’t even do that in Arkansas!” I’ve long been familiar with another popular-song riff on the story, Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex,” which notes that “he loved his mother like no other / His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.”

tom lehrer

“Miss Otis Regrets” is a Cole Porter classic, a smooth and sedate ballad that gradually unfolds the tale of a high-society woman who won’t be making a lunch date. Over three verses, the woman’s servant delivers the message that Miss Otis shot her lover dead, was sent to jail, and lynched by a mob. Each verse ends with the line “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” Brilliant! Porter evidently wrote it as a challenge, a parlor game—but it has become a classic. Many have sung it. Miss Fitzgerald sang it best.

ellacole

The Bobbettes were a doo-wop group who wrote their own songs, which was pretty uncommon. Even more incredibly, they were a quintet of schoolgirls of the ages of eleven to thirteen when they came up with their biggest hit, “Mr. Lee.” They sound like brats as they sing about a man based on a teacher they didn’t like. But they sound like cute and playful brats. It paid off, going to #6 pop and #1 R&B. After a few other tries at hits, they decided to revisit Mr. Lee and sing about how they really felt, with the song “I Shot Mr. Lee.” Rough stuff for some teeny-bopper doo-woppers! “One, two, three / I shot Mr. Lee.” It was their second-biggest hit, but only made it to #52.

On the haunting side of murder songs (because, really, songs about murder should be haunting), the Skip James song “Crow Jane” is timeless and disturbing. Skip’s eerie falsetto tells the story of a man who shot his woman, Crow Jane, and now regrets it. Her crime? She “holds her head too high.” He had enough and killed her, then wails as they lay her in her grave. A masterpiece in the “Frankie and Johnny,” “Little Delia” mold—but much moodier.

skip

Nehemiah “Skip” James did some recording and performing in the twenties and thirties, and then became a preacher, working mostly outside the music trade. In the early ‘60s, James was one of those blues artists who were rediscovered, introduced to the wider world at a Newport Folk Festival (in his case, in 1964), and made several great late-career recordings. The album Today! is an excellent way to get to know Skip James, and includes the beautiful and unsettling “Crow Jane.”

Blues great Bessie Smith, in 1927, pleads with a judge to “Send Me to the Electric Chair.” She doesn’t want bail or jail. She caught him messin’ around, but she sings that she doesn’t “want no sympathy, ‘cause I done cut my good man’s throat.” It’s a story repeated often in blues, from poor Frankie to the present.

Now, about Frankie. I’ve heard many, many versions of “Frankie and Johnny,” no two just alike. But in 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and his son Alan collected it, in American Ballads and Folk Songs, as “Frankie and Albert.” A footnote states that there were over 300 variants of the song in the collection of Robert A. Gordon at that time, and that “no one has ever heard precisely the same song sung by two individuals, unless they happen to be roommates.” And that was eighty years ago! The footnote adds, “Frankie, the heroine of this tragedy, yet lives, according to report, somewhat aloof to the curious only, in Seattle, Washington.”

lomax

The song’s story is always the same. Frankie gets tired of putting up with Albert—or Johnny—and plugs him. “He was her man, but he done her wrong.”

I can only recall two times that I have heard a song on the radio that made me pull the car over and listen, enraptured. One was a selection sung by The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. (Don’t let the name fool you; the a cappella sound these ladies make is ethereal. It ran me off the road. The choir appears on the two volumes of Le Mystere du Voix Bulgares.) The other instance involved my first exposure to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The harmonized Freddie Mercury sections just blew me away. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The music was so astounding that it was only much later that I realized that the song was a killer’s confession. Brian May’s guitar solos are pretty dang nice, too. Still a monument of pop music, the best harmonies outside of The Beach Boys.

bob marley

Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” brought Bob Marley to the attention of the United States. Marley’s song wasn’t changed very much by Clapton in his cover version. But Bob’s vocal quality suits his song, and all of his songs, to such an extent that the original Marley-sung versions are always the best. The song represents injustice of the powers that be, here played by Sheriff John Brown, over those who are not in power.

Honorable Mention: I just watched for the second time a documentary about Jimi Hendrix. It shows parts of several bravura performances of his breakout song, “Hey Joe.” Jimi completely reimagined the Billy Roberts folk song that was a hit for The Leaves in ’66. The Jimi Hendrix Experience hit version is the definitive one.

Dream Jukebox: Although I’d prefer The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” I would settle for “I Shot Mr. Lee.”

 

Although many of these murder songs are love songs, this post was not meant to be a Valentine’s Day-themed post. But, now that we’re here, what are your favorite songs of love and murder?

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