by carl wilson

One-Tune Tomes, Continued


Plenty of interesting contributions to the single-song book discussion in the Comments. Among books that collect one-song studies, I'd add last year's anthology The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love & Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Greil Marcus & Sean Wilentz. And yes, I have and admire the Friedwald book, too, Jody - and the Douglas Wolk book on Live at the Apollo is one of my favourites in the 33 1/3 series. You should absolutely read it, though I'm not sure it's got the definitive take on Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag.

Still, it's clear there are lots & lots & lots of essays on single songs. (In audio form, I'd refer you to the NPR 100 Songs project too - it's got Papa's but not John's nominee, Caravan.) You find it in quicker form in many "list" books as well, such as Dave Marsh's greatest-rock-singles book and David Cantwell and Bill Frikiscs-Warren's Heartaches by the Number, for instance. It's an excellently elegant form, and certainly not yet overdone or even enough-done; I really want to take a crack at some point. But the single-song book is a virtuoso test-piece, really stretching the limits. It risks seeming like an overextended article, I agree (I suspect the Louis Louis book is like that), but if done right it also dares to try to use that song as a way to illuminate a whole period or a whole historical thread - and history in turn to illuminate the song.

(The idea of Tagg's 400-page musicological analysis of the Kojak theme, however, makes me gag a bit. Though I'm also helplessly curious. I do like the dry self-awareness - I think? -of its title: 50 Seconds of Television Music.)

But what do I know? I'm also intrigued by those books that use Salt or Sugar or Coffee or the Pencil or the year 1910 as a hub for a historical exploration. It's a very creative and often revelatory approach, as long as the author isn't dumb enough to believe his publisher's hype that, y'know, Codfish Explains Everything and/or Saved the World. That particular part of the trend has gotten way out of hand - it used to be that such books were called "the cultural history of fish" - now it's "the fishy history of culture," which is way dumber.

Keep the bookworthy-songs nominations (and bibliographical notes) coming. I'll compile the list when all ideas are in. Hell, maybe I'll approach a publisher and give 33 1/3 a run for its tiny-music-book money: Now with even more miniscule subject matter and packaging! (They would be the size of Hanuman books [and I think that example is even a little bigger than actual size].)

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 26 at 12:21 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)



Thanks, Mike. I must have heard about the Bernstein thing at some point -- must be what put this in my head in the first place. I'll track down the Norton Lectures.

Speaking of The Saddest of All Keys and glissandos of perfect fifth intervals and that: you're right that it's insanely reductionist for musicologists to talk in these terms, but this kind of thinking does have an interesting history, e.g., the "Devil's Interval" or tritone, which the Church banned in the Middle Ages. One of my absolute favorite records EVAH is an insanely beautiful solo violin recording (with tons of wicked improvisation) by Andrew Manze of Tartini's The Devil's Sonata, which I *think* (not sure) is based on this interval.;=classical

Posted by jody on October 28, 2005 12:03 PM



And by the way, I think you're right about context making any objective claims about the meaning of a single element of music rather suspect. That's why, I think, work like Tagg's has not been continued by the present generation of musicologists.

Posted by Mike Daley on October 28, 2005 7:20 AM



Jody, Leonard Bernstein does a short bit on the "Nyah Nyah" song in his Norton Lectures, which came out in book form (and on LP, which I spent a beautiful afternoon in 1992 listening to in the McMaster library) as "The Unanswered Question". As I recall, he explains its 'universality' by making reference to the harmonic series.
And Carl, the nice thing about studies like Tagg's is that once you get the methodology, you don't really have to *read* it.

Posted by Mike Daley on October 28, 2005 7:17 AM



Caravan is also one of the best banjo songs ever, at least to hear Gord Acri play it.

Posted by Dixon on October 27, 2005 6:43 PM



Not to mention the Residents' ultracreepy take on it and other Sousa anthems, along with some Hank Williams Sr. tunes, on their album The Stars & Hank Forever. (In the American Composers series that also spawned their 'covers' of Elvis and James Brown.)

Posted by zoilus on October 27, 2005 6:42 PM



one more thing on the nationalist music tip -- Chick Webb's smoking big band swing cover of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Posted by john on October 27, 2005 5:10 PM



It makes sense that "Lick My Love Pump" would have been written in "the saddest of all keys," since "suck," for a reason I can't fathom, has such negative connotations. (When my son will still nursing, I would always wonder what's so wrong about sucking.)

There's actually a whole history behind "the saddest of all keys," having to do with tuning practices before equal-tempered tuning. The further one got from C major, the harsher the tuning would get, because the pitches were not yet tuned in equal intervals in the old systems. Hence "saddest" and so on. (Forgive the pedantry -- I just think it's interesting, as well as, of course, funny to think about in relation to "Lick My Love Pump.")

Jody, according to Wikipedia
Mozart didn't write the original "Twinkle Twinkle" tune, though he did write variations on it.

"Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah" is a Great Song. Years ago friends of mine covered it in their noise-punk-improv band. The leader of that band now covers "Twinkle Twinkle," believe it or not.

Posted by john on October 27, 2005 5:07 PM



What key was "Lick My Love Pump" written in, again? I recall it being the saddest of all keys....

Posted by Drew on October 27, 2005 4:42 PM



I've heard of that strain of musicology but never put a toe in. Part of it seems undeniably useful: We'd all agree that there are melodic or timbral tropes that signify hesitancy or fright or romance or even trilling birds... especially since movie scores have codified and reinforced them visually. But it's so culture-and-context dependent: Not just within a given tradition or genre but within any piece of music - a swelling string section after a violent guitar solo has a different semiotic charge than after a sweet, arpeggiated piano intro. So to say what a D-to-F interval in the Kojak theme means based on what it's meant in other contexts seems... well, distressingly literalminded, to put it kindly. It's not the kind of stuff one wants to read (I'm impressed, Mike!), but it'd be nice to be able to download all the info directly into one's brain for reference material...

Posted by zoilus on October 27, 2005 1:40 PM



John, didn't Mozart write the "Twinkle, Twinkle" music?

Speaking of children's songs, I've wish someone would do a study of the playground taunt "song," "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah." I've heard this same five-note melody (with different "words") used by kids in playgrounds in France, Italy, and England. And I remember reading somewhere that the same song is sung in China. Curious.

Re: Star-Spangled Banner: I assume everyone has heard Marvin Gaye's incredible version?

Posted by jody on October 27, 2005 12:57 PM



Re the earlier post that began discussing "American the Beautiful" and "God Bless America," there's a truly bad jazz version of the "Star Spangled Banner" on trumpeter Roy Campbell's Blue Series disc, an otherwise decent outing. Now there's a song that deserves an obituary.

Trying to think of songs that would merit a book (or at least lead me to pick one such up at a bookstore). Mebbe "A Change is Gonna Come." Not as ripe (sorry) as "Strange Fruit," perhaps, but not a bad starting place for discussing Cooke, civil rights, soul music, gospel, Allen Klein, those Italian producers of his.... Guralnick could probably knock it out between lunch and dinner.

(And thanks for showing me up, linkwise.)

Posted by Drew on October 27, 2005 12:32 PM



I've read much of the Tagg Kojak book, and all of the Fernando book. I take it as the last gasp of a strain of musicology that aims for an objective assessment of musical meaning by placing a piece of music within the larger semiotic field. Here's a paraphrased example from imperfect memory. Tagg observes that an upward glissando of a perfect fifth interval is explicitly associated with heroism in a number of operas, national anthems, folk songs, and the like. He shows this with dozens of notated examples. He uses this evidence to assert that a similar upward glissando of a perfect fifth signifies something like the same thing in the Kojak theme. He also connect the sounds to the images in the opening montage, and does very good and necessary work talking about the role of instrumental timbres and orchestration in making meaning.
I associate Tagg's work in this area with the objectivist style of musicology because it reminds me so much of Deryck Cooke's famous (among academusos) book The Language of Music, which does the same thing with classical music, albeit with much less nuance and caution.

Posted by Mike Daley on October 27, 2005 10:53 AM



I really liked the "Louie Louie" book. The story is so outlandish -- it's a rare record that gets banned -- and Dave Marsh tells it with relish. And mustard, and ketchup, and onions -- the works!

The article about "Wimoweh" that someone linked to is astounding. It could stand to be expanded into a book. More info on Solomon Linda; more info on the Weavers' history of claiming copyrights on songs they didn't write, and its history in folk-song collecting (the Lomaxes did it too); more info on the Sphinx of the story, George David Weiss, who wrote the English words for the song, as well as "Can't Help Falling In Love With You" (itself an Americanization of a French tune) and "What a Wonderful World" (co-written with jazz hipster producer Bob Thiele) -- what a cast of characters!

Probably a book could be written on "Mary Had a Little Lamb," or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," which shares a tune with "Bah Bah Black Sheep" and "The Alphabet Song."

Or, hey, I know -- a book on the 19th century Irish (or Irish-American?) drinking song "Finnegan's Wake"!

Posted by john on October 26, 2005 11:42 PM



There's another example linked at your site, Drew - the McSweeneys favourite-songs project, which of course takes off from Nick Hornby's McS-published version of same.

Only on McSweeneys' would two of the songs in such a collection be by the Flaming Lips.

Posted by zoilus on October 26, 2005 5:26 PM



I love this stuff, Carl. My small, impatient mind appreciates a book that uses a small lens (cod; pencil; White Christmas) to open up a wider cultural world. It can feel like the sidelong view of history, where new details or links emerge. Can't think of any books beyond those mentioned, though the Greil-edited STRANDED, the anthology of Desert Island picks, comes to mind, especially in light of Phil Freeman's planned update. Which, given our i-Tunes times, could easily be revamped into a one critic-one song approach: Songs Fluxblog Taught Us.

Also, a bit off topic, but there are some wonderful illustrated kids books that take as their text the lyrics to folks songs. "The City of New Orleans" and "This Land Is Your Land" are two great examples.

Posted by Drew LeDrew on October 26, 2005 4:48 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson