Tag Archives: compact discs

Music of the Whiskey Rebellion

Folk, country, and rock music have lots of songs about whiskey.  But unlike other events in U.S. History, there are not a lot of music or films specifically about the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.  Here is a list to get you started:

  • The public television series The Appalachians contains a segment on the Whiskey Rebellion.  (During the segment, you’ll hear the traditional song “Boozefighters,” performed by Gandydancer and also on the companion CD.  But this song is more likely about Prohibition in the 1920s and not the taxing of whiskey in the 1790s.)
  • The book Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs contains a song “A ‘Canny’ Word to the Democrats o’ the West” (1799) which includes references to the Whiskey Rebellion in heavy Scotch-Irish dialect such as this: “When, ance, about Whiskey, / Ye a’ gat sae crusty, / An’ swore ye’d na pay for a drap.”
  • The same lyricist, David Bruce, also wrote “A New Song for the Jacobins” circa 1798 and also found in Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs.  According to the notes accompanying the song, American Jacobin Clubs were radical agrarians inspired by the French Revolution and “furnished the leadership and organization for the Whiskey Insurrection.”
  • In 1953, Albert F. Beddoe published a song “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” which became somewhat well-known amongst 60s folk revivalists.  It contains the lines: “My daddy he made whiskey, and my granddaddy too, / We ain’t paid a whiskey-tax since seventeen-ninety-two.”  Local group NewLanders, who specialize in songs about the region’s history, perform this song on their Where the Allegheny Flows album.
  • Another song called “Copper Kettle” also appears in folk song collections and tells the story of a jailed Patrick McCrory.  It contains the lyrics: “But Patrick paid no taxes / On any stuff he sold, / That’s why he went to prison,  / So the tale is told.”

— Tim

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My Summer of 2012 Music Obsession

Jazz often sounds good on rainy spring evenings.  Sometimes autumn drives in the country are well suited for classic American folk music.  I dig despair-filled metal and noise during the beautifully stark, white, wasteland of winter.  But summertime often finds me listening to more melodic music.  Poppy, yes, but still uptempo, guitar-based, and suitable for turning up the volume in the car (volume within reason, though; call me cranky, but I think cars with blaring and booming stereos are a public nuisance).

This summer, I have been listening to The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy by Nada Surf over and over and over and over.  It’s somewhat surprising since I didn’t pay much attention to them when they had their big hit “Popular” in the mid-90s.  But in the last ten years, Nada Surf have reinvented themselves into a less ironic, less grungy, more melodic, more earnest and endearing band.  Or maybe it’s just that singer Matthew Caws started singing prettier tunes higher in his vocal range.  Their latest album is a masterpiece of power pop with the right amount of driving songs, catchy melodies and frills like cello, organ, trumpet and xylophone to spice up the guitar rock.  (If you don’t trust my opinion, check out the gushing enthusiasm for Nada Surf by the good folks at Aquarius Records.)

As might be expected from still-inspired musical veterans,  lyrics from many songs address the passing of time:

“elusive energy / hard to hold / I’m looking for it now / and will be when I’m old”

“when I was young / I didn’t know if I was better off / asleep or up / now I’ve grown up / I wonder what was that world / I was dreaming of?”

“sometimes I ask the wrong questions / but I get the right answers / moved to a tear by / a subway breakdancer / it’s never too late for teenage dreams”

“and I cannot believe / the future’s happening to me”

Time has been good to Nada Surf.  I am so pleased when a band can release possibly their best album twenty years into their career.

— Tim

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Irene Dunne: Lovely to Listen to

You might know actress Irene Dunne (1898-1990) from her movies.  I have yet to see any of her dramatic films; her hilarious comedic turn with Cary Grant as a sparring couple in The Awful Truth was my introduction to her.  And she was one of the reasons why I watched the fashion show musical Roberta where she sang her hit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  She had a lovely voice which is why I’m so glad that the UK record label Sepia has recently compiled and released a CD of recordings of hers from the 1930s and 40s.  The album, titled Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities, mostly features tunes by Jerome Kern (1885-1945) who was most famous as the composer of the musical Show Boat.

Dunne’s voice was certainly a well-honed tool: she attended the Chicago Musical College on a scholarship and auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (see Wes D. Gehring’s fawning Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood for more biographical info).  Unfortunately, some folks might describe Dunne’s vocal style as “dated.”  So what?  What’s wrong with a musical style that defines an era?  I think of it as a bridge between the ultra-rounded vowels of classically trained singers and the brassier, wide-mouthed style of later musical theater.  Give it an ear or two and see what you think.  My favorite tune on the disc, “Lovely to Look At” (from Roberta), is proof enough for me that Dunne is also lovely to listen to.

— Tim

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Speak Softly and Carry a Guitar: The Bitch Magnet Reissues

The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities.  Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, for instance.

But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians.  They met at Oberlin College.  The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes.  The band name was surely ironic.  Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung.  But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.

Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.

I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs.  But I recommend his music.

Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud.  Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet.  In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums.  The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc.  But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order.  I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty.  Enjoy!

— Tim

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Contrasting Early and Late Art Pepper

Many musicians’ careers go like this: early efforts bristling with rawness and urgency, a successful creative peak where a bit of polish is added but doesn’t overwhelm, and then a long downward slope where earlier ambition is replaced by simply refining or just plain simplifying one’s sound.  A case in point might be the progressive rock band Rush who after their late 70s/early 80s peak mostly abandoned odd-time signatures and epic-length works to concentrate more on songwriting.  Boo.

Anyway, it’s exciting to look at an early and a late recording by an artist and see the reverse happen.  Take saxophonist Art Pepper (1925-1982) and contrast his Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section album from 1957 with his Complete Village Vanguard Sessions from 1977.  The former showcases Pepper’s facility, brevity and clean tone while the latter documents more sonic experimentation with longer songs, longer solos, and an exploration of the noisier potential of his instrument.

Of course, some of the difference can be attributed to one being a studio recording and the other being a live album.  But also in the interim between 1957 and 1977, the influence of soul-searching, sonic explorer, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) can’t be denied.  Pepper’s use of Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones (1927-2004), for the gigs at the Vanguard further reinforces the Coltrane connection.  Also certainly, Pepper’s mental illness and drug problems affected his process, both creatively in manic episodes where he would write new material all night in his hotel bathroom or destructively where years of his career were lost to addiction and prison.  Read his memoir Straight Life: the Story of Art Pepper or watch Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor if you want to know more, but for now, I’ll advise concentrating on his music and avoiding any romanticizing of troubled artists.

Check out those two worthwhile recordings (and others) and hear what Art Pepper was able to accomplish despite his troubles.

— Tim

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Discovering a New Drummer: Marcus Gilmore

Lately I’ve been listening to Vijay Iyer’s 2005 album Reimagining.  Even though Iyer is a one-of-a-kind pianist, since I’m a drummer, let’s be honest, I’m paying lots of attention to the drummer, Marcus Gilmore.  Instead of the standard, swingin’, ding-dinga-ding ride cymbal pattern of traditional jazz, Gilmore chops up the time to follow Iyer’s quirky lines.  Yet he still drives the music along.

According to Jazziz magazine, “Gilmore started playing in the rhythmically complex environments of Vijay Iyer’s trios and quartets in 2003, when he was a 16-year-old high-school student.”  (Jazziz, Summer 2011, Vol. 28, Issue 6, p.78)  Wow.  And that was after Gilmore had played with saxophonist and odd-time innovator Steve Coleman.  It reminds me of whiz kid Tony Williams (1945-1997) joining Miles Davis’ quintet at age 17 after playing with saxophonist Jackie McLean.

It’s natural that Gilmore (b. October 10, 1986) would gravitate towards great drumming since he is the grandson of still-living, mind-melting, master drummer Roy Haynes (1925- ) and nephew of cornet player, Graham Haynes.  But perhaps more importantly, it’s Gilmore’s practicing and the opportunities he got while a student at the famous Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts that set him on his way.  And in his mid-twenties, Gilmore is already a well-established figure in the world of jazz drumming.

Bill Milkowski sums him up well in Modern Drummer:

…it’s his talent alone that has led Marcus Gilmore to be considered one of the most gifted young drummers on the New York scene.  Blessed with an abundance of chops, flawless time, a penchant for intricate subdivisions, and a remarkable sense of independence on the kit, Gilmore also exhibits rare poise and a quiet intelligence on the bandstand — a natural-born drummer indeed. (Modern Drummer, March 2008, Vol. 32, Issue 3, p. 110)

— Tim

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I (Somewhat) Hate Being Irish

Perhaps the only holiday I dislike as much as Christmas is St. Patrick’s Day.  I also loathe being Irish.  That’s right.  Amongst other things, I have little pride in my ancestors’ alcoholism, bad skin, belligerence, and boiled potato cuisine.

But what is perhaps best about public libraries is that they are places to be easily introduced to different cultures and to overcome one’s prejudice.  So on March 17th, instead of being outside watching some hooligan in a green hat vomit on the sidewalk, I’ll be working at the library amidst some of the wondrous things that Ireland and the Irish have to offer.  For instance:

  • Though William Butler Yeats (born in Sandymount, Ireland in 1865) made forays into mysticism that got a bit ridiculous, I love his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
  • The books and plays by brilliant, witty Oscar Wilde (born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854) have at least one quotable line on every single page.  I just re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray a couple of months ago and I also drove around listening twice in a row to an audio recording of The Importance of Being Earnest without realizing that it featured the guy who played Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • Oh, Irish music.  I don’t care for most jigs and reels and pub sing-a-longs.  I also don’t know why people (including lots of ex-skinheads) like The Pogues and their thoroughly unappealing sounding frontman, Shane McGowan, so much.  What I do think the Irish are great at, though, are the sentimental songs like “Galway Bay” that long for home.
  • You might know him from Bridesmaids, but I love Irish actor Chris O’Dowd and his accent in the comedy series The IT Crowd.
  • Why would one sit in a pub when surrounded by fabulously green hills, harsh but beautiful coastline, and ancient, mysterious stone structures?  Until I actually go visit Ireland myself (and I will soon!), I’ll be thumbing through books with lots of pictures of it.

— Tim O’Tim McTim

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