Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Oh-oh-oh, listen to the music

I had a fun musical week, and I thought I’d share it. A week ago Friday, I saw John McCutcheon in concert at a Habitat for Humanity benefit. I didn’t think I knew who he was at all, until he told us that he’s the guy who sings the "I’m gonna wrap myself in paper / I’m gonna mail myself to you" song used in the Christmastime Post Office ads. (Which, by the way, is a Woody Guthrie song… as McCutcheon put it, "in the age of email and instant messaging, Woody and I are helping the Post Office tell people to write letters.")

Then, later in the show, I found out he wrote Christmas in the Trenches, which I’d been vaguely hunting for for about 15 years now.

McCutcheon is a good old-fashioned unreconstructed folkie lefty. He sang songs about unions and workingmen and war and Ashcroft’s Army, and told the most fabulous stories between them. (Having heard most of my live folk music in bars, I’d forgotten how exquisite it was to listen to a storyteller working to music.) But most of the students there (and a lot of the parents too) clearly knew him best from his albums for children. And he did, indeed, perform plenty of songs about fatherhood and family and his kids. I thought it was kind of funny… until I realized that’s pretty much the musical relationship I have with Pete Seeger.

It was McCutcheon’s story about singing Joe Hill in Australia which sold me a copy of his Live at Wolf Trap album. (That makes 2 copies of Joe Hill I own. It gives me chills every time. One more copy and I think I get an IWW card. Two more and HUAC will be at my door.)

And having designs on both Alpha Geek and intellectual property opinionmaker status, how much can I love somebody who got online in time to register folkmusic.com as his domain name, and lets you download the "short shelf life" political commentary songs for free.

Then Saturday night, continuing my festival of lefty music, I watched
Green Day
perform American Idiot on VH1. Like a lot of rock operas, it opens really well and seems to drag in the middle, but comes to a pretty interesting end. (Tip to the rock world… if you don't throw in a recitative or two to tell us what the heck is going on, what you've written isn’t an opera, it's a musical without a script.)

I don’t buy into the "Green Day isn’t real punk" argument, but then, I’m not a real punk either. All I know is that I heard a fair number of those classic '60s rock figures played real fast and real loud, which was good enough for the Ramones and it's good enough for me. And some really passionate but not real coherent social criticism, which, again, seems traditional. I’m trying to decide whether the whole album is worth a purchase, or if I should just cherry-pick the good stuff from iTunes.

(By the way, it’s "music month" on VH1. Are all my readers old enough to remember when it was always music month on VH1?)

Tuesday night brought a concert by John Holloway, Jaap ter Linden, and Lars Ulrik Mortensen, of music from the 1700s. And what is, to me at least, a brand new sentence.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen plays harpsichord like Mick Jagger would.

He emotes with his whole body, back rocking, eyes piercing, making faces at his colleagues and the harpsichord. Kinda cool.

And to wrap it up, I saw Sahara last Friday. (It’s your basic 3 out of 5 stars action movie… nothing wrong with it, or particularly brilliant about it either.) The group included our History department’s Africanist. He was kind enough to point out the movie’s valuable historical lessons: there really is a continent called Africa, in the Western part of it there really is a country called Mali, and there really is a West African nomadic people called the Tuareg. Everything else was pretty much… um… fiction. ("Wrong" is such a judgmental word.)

But the musical angle is that the soundtrack does a really interesting job of evoking Africa with music. And, sure enough, our Africanist says that some of it was relatively recent African "top 40" music. It’s obviously informed by different traditions than American music, but also produced and composed in a modern enough style to appeal to American audiences. And I can’t help but wonder if African audiences will get a similar cultural code to the fact that the Americans were symbolized with 70s classic rock.

Which got me to wondering: there are Oscars for best song and best score, but why not one for best soundtrack? Shouldn’t there be an award which celebrates the use of existing music to tap into their intense cultural connections? Doesn’t the person who digs through the archives to find just the right song, or who commissions a brilliant cover, deserve some credit?

Right now, I’ll bet you have a copy of the soundtrack for either The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, or The Commitments in your collection. If you’re roughly my age, I bet either "American Girl" or "Stuck in the Middle with You" will never be the same again. (In fact, I bet you're shuddering right now.) Every last person reading this has sat through to the end of the credits to find out "who was that singing that song." Heck, I hear songs and picture how they might be used in a movie which hasn’t even been written yet. Somebody puts a lot of work into the choosing, licensing, and editing that music… haul them up and let us know who they are!

(And here's a major frustration... according to Amazon, the "Music From And Inspired By Sahara" album only includes the classic rock. None of the African stuff. Thank you, Marketing Department.)


Blogger Alison said...

I know Joe knows this, but I still feel the need to share it with the world. In my not-so-humble opinion, the best soundtrack moment in history comes in Grosse Pointe Blank.


In the scene in which Martin Blank goes home (only to find a 7-11 there instead), they play the Guns n Roses cover of "Live and Let Die." Pretty cool all on its own. The scene reaches brilliance, though, when you realize that, during the time he is inside the 7-11, they have a Muzak version of "Live and Let Die" playing in the background. The segues between the two versions are perfect.

I would have loved to have the Muzak version as a bonus track on the soundtrack.

1:11 PM, April 12, 2005  
Blogger Swankette said...

Alison - you are not the only person with that opinion. I've mentioned that moment many a time.

Although best soundtrack ever may go to Repo Man, because I love the way it's just the music he's listening to on the car stereo, or in the 7-11 or whatever.

And not only do I remember when it was always music month on VH1, I remember a life before VH1. Heck, I remember a life before MTV and can still tell you the first video I saw on MTV AND my parents first video on MTV.

8:20 PM, April 12, 2005  
Blogger GrigorPDX said...

All right, now I'm just green with envy. You got to see John McCutcheon live?


1:07 PM, April 13, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

I got "American Idiot" for Sweetie and we both think it's the best work they've done. For me, Green Day is sorta like The Clash: a punk band that knows how to make pop songs that sound punk. I used to be on the "Green Day isn't real punk" bandwagon, this album pushed me off.

9:34 AM, April 14, 2005  

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