Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Do We Have to Have Murder Songs?

   In Old Time Music we generally like to stick to the traditional lyrics for a song.  But what do we do when there are lyrics that are really, truly objectionable?

   There are many, many song lyrics that deal with committing murder.  Not to pick on an American Institution, but one prominent set that comes to mind is from Blue Yodel No 1 (T for Texas):

      I'm gonna buy me a pistol
      Just as long as I'm tall, Lawd, Lawd 
      I'm gonna buy me a pistol
      Just as long as I'm tall
      I'm gonna shoot poor Thelma
      Just to see her jump and fall.




Now if these songs were from a rap song we might go wild and write a nastygram to the radio station for playing it, but this is an industry standard song, one of the (otherwise) greatest songs in history.  Or how about the Bill Monroe standard, Banks of the Ohio:
    
     I held a knife against her breast
        As into my arms she pressed
     She said Willie "Don't you murder me
        I'm unprepared for eternity."

     I took her by her lily white hand,
       And dragged her down that bank of sand
     There I throwed her in to drown.
        I watched her as she floated down.



Less objectionable to me are lyrics that are about repentance.  Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues comes to mind:

     When I was just a baby, 
        My mama told me, Son
     Always be a good boy, 
        Don't ever play with guns.
     But I shot a man in Reno 
        Just to watch him die.
    When I heard that whistle blowing,  
        I hang my head and cry



So, performers are faced with the decision about whether to keep the traditional lyrics or drop those that seem to promote insidious evil.  

What is the purpose of putting these lyrics in a song?  Indeed, there is kind of a tradition that says a good performing set should include a Civil War song, a train song, a love song and a murder song. I'm not sure why that is, but many bands deliberately compose song sets that contain at least one murder song. 

I don't think that Jimmie Rodgers or Bill Monroe or any of the others wanted to inspire a generation of women killers.   Perhaps it is intended to be a sort of catharsis,   much like a Shakespearean murder play such as MacBeth or Hamlet.  By experiencing horrible crimes in a song, perhaps the listeners will be warned to avoid it in the future.  But is that really the way it works?


I don't know of any scientific study that says listening to this song or others like it will increase the probability that the listener will resort to gun violence.   Nevertheless, I think advertisers will vouch for the power of song in advertising, and if you create songs about, for example, eating at McDonalds,  and get enough people to listen to it, you will create a higher chance that people will actually eat at McDonalds.  So it makes sense that if you have a tremendously popular song about offing your girlfriend, there is a risk that such crimes will increase.  

For that reason my preference would be to avoid lyrics that seem to promote behaviors that would be considered felonies, especially when they seem unrepentant.  For example, in "T for Texas" after murdering Thelma in cold blood, the guy gets a shotgun to do in Thelma's new boyfriend as well. 

In the Morgantown Wednesday Night Jam, the lead singer has been known to tweak the lyrics when they suggest wrongdoing or violence to women.    It's just a little thing, but to me the world is just a bit better place when the lyrics about violence or wrongdoing are left out.     

But I can kind of understand why people feel the need to sing about murder and other almost unspeakable crimes, since unfortunately it is a part of our everyday lives.   There is no clear cut answer, but I would like to ask my performer friends to at least reflect on the lyrics before automatically going with them.  You never know what influence you might have on someone.  


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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sail Away Ladies

    Sail Away Ladies is an incredible song, but one which for some reason few people have ever heard of.  Vinnie Farsetta performs this as a banjo solo and it is also a mainstay for the Morgantown Brewing Company Wednesday Night Jam.    

    Sail Away Ladies has a leader/response format, in which the leader (Vinnie) sings a line, and the group sings back a response ("Sail away ladies, sail away.").  In the recording from the Gardner festival below, Vinnie sings both parts.




Vinnie Farsetta at the Gardner Worley Music Festival.  Thank you Kathryn Madison for the shoot.  


In Morgantown, every time Vinnie does this song it about brings the house down.  Some people might assume that it is a modern composition, but in fact it has a distinguished history.  Uncle Dave Macon recorded a great version of the song back in 1927.   I don't know where Dave picked it up; however, his family operated the old Broadway Hotel in Nashville, which housed many travelling entertainers including Vaudeville performers and minstrel show performers.  No doubt this was a perfect place to pick up banjo songs, and perhaps this is where he might have heard Sail Away Ladies.  According to the Fiddler's Companion (Andrew Kuntz) Uncle Bunt Stevens won the title of World Champion Fiddler in 1926 playing this tune beating 1,876 other fiddlers in auto magnate Henry Ford’s series of contests, held at dealerships through the East and Midwest. 


     Paul Wells  of Middle Tennessee State University believes that the song dates from at least the turn of the 20th century and seems to have been common to both black and white traditions. 

Uncle Dave Macon produced an inspired version of Sail Away back in 1927.  

The lyrics from the Vinnie version are transcribed below.  Note that Vinnie often skips singing the first "Don't you rock my Daddy-o" but plays it on the banjo.  You need to have all four lines for it to come out right :).     





Sail Away Ladies

G                      D               G
If ever I get my new house done,
G              D/G     G   
(Sail away ladies, sail away)
G                      D               G
I'll give the old one to my son,
G              D/G     G  
(Sail away ladies, sail away)

G                            C
Don't you rock my dad-dy-0,
                              G
Don't you rock my dad-dy-0
                              D
Don't you rock my dad-dy-0
                                   G
Sail away ladies sail away.

I’ll chew my tobacco and spit that juice
(Sail away ladies, sail away)
I love my woman, but it aint no use
(Sail away ladies, sail away).
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0,
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0
Sail away ladies sail away.
If ever I get my new house done,
(Sail away ladies, sail away)
I'll give the old one to my son,
(Sail away ladies, sail away)
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0,
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0
Sail away ladies sail away.
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0,
Don't you rock him dad-dy-0
Sail away ladies sail away.

*1000 extra verses optional*

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What's Really Wrong with American Idol

What's Really Wrong with American Idol





     Ratings for American Idol are far below what they were a few years ago.   A number of theories have been put forward to explain that.  One is that they miss the sarcastic but talented and witty Simon Cowell. Another is that the show has lost its edge--they no longer insult the less talented contestants as they used to.  
     
"Ha!  I knew Idol wouldn't be as big a success without me!"


      But I don't think all those theories are off the mark. I think the judges (Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr) are incredibly talented.  And the contestants are way better than back in the day.  
     I think that the audience is the problem.  Over the years, the show has managed to program them, so that they have become typecast and campy, totally predictable and dull.  Every time a contestant takes the stage, the audience treats him/her like they are a new singing sensation, a la Susan Boyle.  The have this mindless dull cheer:  "Waaaaaaahhhhhh!!"

     Then one of the judges says something nice, "You have an impressive star quality.  I really like you."

      "Waaaaaaahhhhhh!!"

     "You're just what this show is looking for!"

      "Waaaaaaahhhhhh!!"

     If, on the other hand, a judge says something not quite complimentary, the audience has a corresponding canned boo.  

     "I didn't think this was a good song choice for you." 
   
     "Booooooooooooo!!"

      "This key might have been a little too high for your voice."  

     "Booooooooooooo!!"

     It doesn't seem to matter which contestant it is, the audience reaction is basically the same.  It seems totally preprogrammed and dull.  

Has the American Idol audience lost its edge?  Yup. 
  
I would like to see the audience having some more important role with the show rather than mindless cheering and booing.   Perhaps they could be given some kind of on-the-air voting responsibility so that the live audience reaction could be compared with the at-home audience.  The judges can probably do a better job if each negative comment is not booed, even if it means not cheering for each positive comment.   

     I think it might be more interesting if the live audience reaction were a little less predictable.