Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Andrew Sisters - Apple Blossom Time

July, 2012: In Echuca for the Winter Blues Festival, the challenge was: how to avoid paying the tourist premium?*  In a restaurant, I ordered fettucine with veal meatballs, the second cheapest main-meal (which reminds me, the most popular coffin is the second cheapest in the catalogue) and the waiter pressed me strongly to order the veal shanks instead, $10 dearer.  Finally I said, "Why?  Is there something wrong with the meatballs?"  
But Andy scored a bargain at the Moama markets: eight pieces of sheet-music, 50c each.  The Stephen Foster songbook promises nights of entertainment, but it was Begin The Beguine (a song that even Cole Porter, who wrote it, couldn't play without the music in front of him) that led us back to the Andrew Sisters.  I hadn't heard the Andrew Sisters since childhood - Errol had a best-of I'd listened to almost as much as the Supremes.  APPLE BLOSSOM TIME was my favourite back then.  Andy looked it up in 1001 Pop Songs, and hearing it again, I understood why I'd loved it.  The first line: "I'll be with you in apple blossom time" - in my mind's-eye, I see masses of soft, white petals, bees buzzing, grown-up me in a white dress, veil floating on a sunny breeze...It is a happily-ever-after fantasy with all the stops pulled out.  But children like a hint of darkness in their art, because they know it's there, out in the wide world, and in their own bedrooms as soon as the light goes out.  The minor chords of APPLE BLOSSOM TIME, the unexpected twists and turns in the melody, the weird intervals (which, as we discovered, make for difficult harmonising), give it a piquancy I would have responded to as a child.  Now, of course, I hear it as a war-time song, and the piquancy is even sharper: the longing for peace and tranquility, fruitful life and love, while in a world of turmoil.
*It is worth paying the tourist premium just to see, and perhaps step foot on, the Echuca paddle-steamers.  Was anything made by man more lovable than an old paddle-steamer?  Seeing the steam of the approaching PS Emmylou rising above the red-gums, hearing the 'plash-plash' of her paddle, then the sound of Andy's fiddle (a three-hour engagement on a Murray River cruise), was very exciting.  I uncharacteristically took more than one photo.

Vera Lynn's version of APPLE BLOSSOM TIME is the most beautiful:


Amazingly enough, here is a clip of the Supremes and the Andrew Sisters singing each other's songs on a TV show:


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dusty Rankin

May, 2012: One of my most oft-played purchases from Athol Colemane has turned out to be a Columbia compilation, The History Of Australian Country Music, Vol I.  The cover was missing (Athol, being meticulous, kept it in a white sleeve with his neat writing on it) so I got it half-price for $1.  On this comp, I first heard Shirley Thoms, though of course I'd heard of her - Shirley's mysterious, sweet, ageless voice, as clear-ringing as a bell-bird, struck me immediately.  But the song that sent me to the record-player - who is this? who wrote this? and what the hell is that word he keeps singing? - was CURRABUBULA, sung by Dusty Rankin, written by someone whose surname is Hawthorne.  I tried to "check it out on the Google" (best wishes, Jimmy Little, wherever you are), but didn't get far.  
It's a song about the good old days, when this "sleepy little hollow" just south of Tamworth was a thriving centre.  This theme can be grossly sentimental, and worse - it can be a wallowing in the trait that afflicts a lot of us as we get older, namely, the refusal to accept change and find good in it; it also often smacks of the 'good old days' when non-whites and women knew their place.  At the same time, it's interesting and poignant that many of these decrepit, shrunken towns we drive through (or in the case of this song, catch a train through) were once lively and full of potential, and it would be a shame to avoid this theme out of fear of stepping into one of its booby traps. Several things save CURRABUBULA from being repugnant, nostalgic Australiana.  For a start, there's its craftsmanship and literariness - Hawthorne clearly put a lot of effort into this song, while many country songwriters go to great pains to create songs out of plain words, plain, old clichés, and to eschew anything that can remotely be considered poetic or intellectual.  Hawthorne even goes so far as to refer (without contempt) to a more literary era: "In the days of books and letters" (so unexpected was this line, I first heard it as "boots and leathers").  He uses metaphor, imagery: "But you couldn't say that this lonely place/ Was all peace and quiet, made of silk and lace."  Another of this song's charms is its rhyming scheme, which has just about every word you could think of to rhyme with Currabubula - railway car, Shangri-la, church bazaar, near and far, blood and scar.  Even the repetition of 'Currabubula', an outrageous word to put in a song, let alone about a dozen times, makes the listener smile.  And there are the two extra-long lines that the otherwise steady rhythm has to accommodate with a little skip (thereby showing the priority that the words, the meaning, has over the form).  These might sound like insignificant touches, but when you listen to a lot of country music, poetry like this stands out.  
Dusty Rankin sings it in his warm, low, dusty voice, adding (only once, more's the pity) that rare thing: a soothing yodel.

Here it is:


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Elvis Presley

March, 2012: I revisited a wallet of CDs I used to carry around with me during a certain rootless, homeless period of my life.  Most of them were burns from Nic's vast collection, and comps of favourites put together by him or Galea.  I'd listened to them heavily, drawing comfort from them.  Revisiting them was a bit scary - would these CDs suck me back into that sad time?  Music is magic, and I wouldn't dare underestimate it.  
Among the CDs I revisited was one of Elvis's, Rhythm And Country.  It's a burn, so I don't have the liner notes, but it's a late-90s release of a session he did in Memphis in 1973, including heads and tails where Elvis is warming up and mucking up.  Not that I had any doubt, but it proves his consummate skill as a singer.  The song I fell profoundly and permanently in love with, back in 2003, was Danny O'Keefe's 'Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues'; this time, it was 'YOUR LOVE'S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING'.  There's nothing to this song, so it seems; it's built in a loose and slap-dash way around that one line: "Baby, your love's been a long time coming."  Next comes: "Baby, your love's got a hold on me/ Baby, your love's sure got me humming/ Baby, your love's been a long time coming."  I can picture a few songwriters (some internetting has yielded up three authors: Carmol Taylor, Norris D. Wilson and R. Bourke) whipping it up in five minutes - "Hey, what rhymes with 'coming'?"  "Bumming, gumming?  Humming?"  And I can see Elvis singing the lyric straight off the page, accidentally skipping over a verse, adding a second chorus to make up for it, (it goes: verse, another verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus), the session players adeptly following him.  To me, it sounds like the work of experts, the sort of perfection people can throw off only after years of slaving over their craft.  "I felt a feeling, such a wonderful feeling, that I never felt before" - I would never be game to write such a line!  Then to repeat similar waffle in the bridge, "Deep in my heart there's a feeling I never knew."  But somehow it all binds together, melody, lyric, performance, capturing a specific emotion.  If you are ever at a point in your life when, after untold number of romantic disappointments, you finally find someone who really loves you (and vice versa), this is the song you'll be singing.

This is a bit more produced (the backing vocals are a bit excessive) than the version I was listening to, but it's still good:


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Shirley Thoms

January, 2012: Athol Colemane has given me a glimpse into a network of country music collectors.  Because I tend to be a bit fuzzy (or fictional) when it comes to facts, these collectors have become mythical figures: such as the one who keeps 80,000 78s in several air-conditioned shipping containers.  And there's the one - I won't say in which country town -  who sells bootleg CDs of early Australian country 78s.  Athol's collection didn't include any Shirley Thoms, 'Australia's Yodelling Sweetheart', but he put me in touch with the bootlegger, whose did.  I put $25 in an envelope and promptly received a beautifully-recorded CD of early Shirley.  
Shirley Thoms has been on my list of music-I-should-hear since Archer of Daylesford, the protogée (posthumously) of Tex Morton, recommended her to me.  "Can you yodel?" asked Archer.  I will never be able to yodel like Shirley, but I can learn a thing or two by trying my best to imitate her.  She has a perfect voice.  It's almost inhuman in its sweetness and purity.  It has a smile in it, like Billie Holiday's.  I learnt HAPPY COWGIRL (not to be confused with Joan Ridgway's 'Yodelling Cowgirl' or June Holm's 'Happy Yodelling Cowgirl') partly because Andy had given me a difficult brief for song lyrics: "nothing sad please".  So I felt the need to research happy songs.  There aren't many of them.  HAPPY COWGIRL is a hard song, not because of the yodel, but because the words are plain, generic and repetitive, and it's easy to get them mixed around - "The air is full of light and the world is all right" in verse one, becomes "The world is all right 'cause your arms hold me tight" in verse four.  And the rising sun shines o'er the prairie, then it shines at noon o'er the prairie, then it sinks at last, then the stars sparkle bright o'er the prairie.  But it's fun to sing.  When I busked in Tamworth this year, I played for 25 minutes on Brisbane Street without earning a cent; then, on Peel Street, I found a bit of quiet that lasted long enough to sing HAPPY COWGIRL and half of 'Century Too Late'.  The lull ended when a yodeller equipped with a PA let rip on the opposite side of the road, and I had to close up shop.  I was counting my earnings when Sophie came out of the Post Office - in the time it had taken Sophie to buy a stamp, Shirley had earned me $9.

Listen to her here: