Monday, March 28, 2011

Loves Me Like a Rock

There is an album of Bob Dylan songs called Saved, and it is a series of his religious songs, done gospel style. Why there is no equivalent Paul Simon compilation is a mystery.

Certainly, he has enough material. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been performed by many gospel groups, and was so recently on TV's Glee. "Gone At Last," "A Church is Burning," "He Was My Brother," "Mother and Child Reunion," "Mrs. Robinson," "One Man's Ceiling," "Slip Slidin'," all are either gospel or could easily be arranged in that style...even his brand-new "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is based on an African-American sermon.

But the one that is the most gospel-inflected is this one right here. On the original album, Simon is backed by The Dixie Hummingbirds. In other performances, he is backed by The Jesse Dixon Singers. Both groups have performed it at their own concerts, without Simon. There is also a great, semi-a capella version by members of the O'Jays that was part of the movie The Fighting Temptations; the clip is on YouTube. As is the clip of Stevie Wonder performing it at a Simon tribute.

It is fair to say that this song is one of the few written in the latter half of the 20th Century that has been accepted into the gospel repertoire... of those songs not written with that intent.

The song itself is very straight-forward. The verses take us through the speaker's life, and even imagine the unlikely event of his ascending to the US presidency. In each case, he is tempted by the Devil (or his stand-in, Congress). In each case, he is able to rebuff the Devil's temptations by knowing he is secure in his mother's love.

In the first verse, he is the picture of childhood innocence and reverence. He is "consecrated" and sings in Church.

Even in adulthood, he is happily married-- sex is not a sin but a "consummation." The line "I can snatch a little purity" might mean that even when he is, um, consummating with his wife, he remembers that this is a sacred act and not just physical pleasure. (If the word "snatch" had the same 'entendre' meaning in the '70s as it does today, this is a very sneaky, ribald pun by Simon.)

The last scene imagines the president at the "podium" before Congress, which generally happens only during the State of the Union Address. Even in this case, the speaker would still say "Who do you think you're fooling?" if he were tempted to do the wrong thing by this powerful group.

All because of his mother's love... which he says is an eternal and immutable as God's, since God is called "The Rock of Ages." (The original Hebrew word "olamim" translates variously as "eternities," "infinities," "worlds" or "universes"-- That God is "tzur olamim" means that God is the constant, steadfast "rock" on all the eternal, infinite planes of existence.)

This is a finite song, but one that has brought infinite joy to millions. And it's certainly the most exuberant Mother's Day card ever written.

The song went to #2 in the US, and stayed in the Top 40 for three and a half months. It charted it many other English-speaking countries: the UK, Canada, and Australia. And also in The Netherlands!

The Hummingbirds' own version made the R&B chart and snatched them a little... Grammy. Jazz favorite Ramsey Lewis covered it, too.

Next Song: Still Crazy After All These Years

Monday, March 21, 2011

St. Judy's Comet

Comets tend to be named for the astronomers who discover them. And one does not think of saints-- religious figures-- as being interested in the science of astronomy. In fact, history is full of antagonism between religious authorities and astronomers.

Yet, comets have been whizzing by for all of recorded history. So they must have been of interest for astrologers. The movement of heavenly bodies-- especially one as dramatic as a comet-- has always been taken as a "sign" for one historical event or another, and one could see how a comet could have been taken as the portent of a miracle performed by a saint and so named for her. Yet, every time I looked for a comet connected with a Saint Judy, or even a St. Judy to begin with, I came up empty.

The closest I can come is St. Jude, and since this song is to a child, one can imagine the child misreading "Jude" by pronouncing the silent "e," resulting in "Judee," which an adult would then spell "Judy."

This album came out in 1973, the year a Comet Kohoutek swung by Earth. It was all over the news and, while it underperformed in astonomer's terms, still was visible without a telescope and captured the public's awe. It spawned dozens of tributes in song as well, by artists as divergent as Kraftwerk and Burl Ives.

So I will hazard a guess that Simon wanted his son to see this astronomic wonder: "I long to see St. Judy's comet sparkle in your eyes when you awake." And it is Simon singing this lullabye: "If I can't sing my boy to sleep, it makes your famous daddy (i.e., Simon himself) look so dumb."

We can picture the father and son watching the comet "roll" by, and noting its tail, the "spray of diamonds in its wake." Then, even though the son was excited by the sight and wanted to discuss it, "the hour of his bedtime [had] long been passed." We can further picture the mother explaining to the father that, since he had riled the child up, he could now be the one to calm him down and tuck him in, explaining that now that the comet had passed, all that was left "flashing" in the night sky were the "fireflies."

The mixed messages given the child of "run come see" and "lay your body down," which alternate, indicate the conflicting tugs all parents feel. We want our children to see the parades, the fireworks, the sunsets, and the once-in-a-lifetime events like comets and eclipses. Yet, we also know that children need their bedtimes and routines... and sleep.

The song is a very touching, personal moment, and one of the prettiest lullabies by a singer-songwriter (and there are a surprising number; Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Pierce Pettis wrote lullabies, for instance). It's a song style that Simon would not revisit until "Father and Daughter."

Garfunkel recorded an album Songs from a Parent to a Child. Perhaps someday, Simon will release an album of his kid-friendly material. If so, this song is a shoo-in.

Next Song: Loves Me Like a Rock

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Learn How to Fall

Another advice-giving song, this time on the value of making mistakes.

A new book, Better by Mistake, references a still earlier one, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). And then there is The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. All discuss the value and methods of learning from one's mistakes. But Simon's song is earlier than them all, by decades.

In the first verse, the speaker urges the listener to learn how to lose with grace, and to "fall" while minimizing injury.

In the second, he encourages serendipity. The only book of mine I wore out as a child was called Little Bunny Follows His Nose, in which the title rabbit did just that, wandering over a meadow, chasing various scents as they wafted by. The metaphor here, however, is sailing. The word "occupation" is used, almost ironically, as that word is generally used to mean a "job," usually a structured endeavor. Here, it simply means "an activity one is doing."

All along, the guitar is tripping along amiably. The breezy ease of the song once again recalls "Cloudy" and "Feelin' Groovy." Someone who says "you got to drift in the breeze" would also agree that "you got to make the morning last" and observe that "[the clouds] don't know where they're going, and... neither do I."

Then comes the chorus, with its scolding horns. Seeming to shift voice, the speaker stridently and cynically excoriates all of humanity, for all its history. Why? They pursue "glory" and don't stop to see the long view, or their effect on the world.

This speaker seems to contradict the first. After all, if you "stop and scrutinize the plan"-- a studious and focused pursuit-- how can you also "drift in the breeze," and amble about, following your nose?

Perhaps the "scrutinizing" does not have to be done pondering books in a library or listening to a lecture. It can be done sitting on bus-stop bench, watching people... or lying on a beach or under a tree, thinking about all one has learned about history and psychology both from school and living life. Certainly, that is a form of "drifting" as much as going out on an actual sailboat. We even use the expression, "let your mind wander."

Overall, the song seems to be advice given to a child about to venture off to college, a sung version of "Don't be afraid to drop a class if you're failing it-- you don't have to be great at everything" and "Don't worry about declaring a major until your junior year" or even "If you want to backpack through Europe for a couple of months first, go ahead."

Lastly, a "tank town" is a very small town, whose only seeming use was as a stop for a train to refill its water tanks. Maybe tank towns "tell no lie" because they are too small to keep secrets. And maybe Simon heard the expression "...learn how to fall" in a town like that; it certainly seems like a rather homey, folksy piece of advice.

Oh... and if I have made any mistakes in this entry, I only hope I can learn from them.

Next Song: St. Judy's Comet

Monday, March 7, 2011

Was a Sunny Day

This is a seemingly slight song, somewhere between the reveries of "Cloudy" and the nonchalance of "Feelin' Groovy."

But there is a bit of history in the song, and trouble in the paradise it loosely describes.

"Sunny" was spun off of a song called "Lover Lover, Come Back," in which Simon was working with some Caribbean tropes. "Lover Lover" eventually became (what else?) "Mother and Child Reunion," and the leftover verses became "Was a Sunny Day," likewise an island-inflected tune.

The line "not a negative word was heard" seems to borrow both syntax and sense from the famous cowboy song "Home on the Range," where "seldom is heard/a discouraging word."

Newport News is a real town, in Virginia, and there is a Navy port there.

But our man Earl? Well, a band called The Cadillacs had a lead singer named Earl Carroll; his nickname was Speedo. In 1955, they recorded their biggest hit, "Speedo": "Well now, they often call me Speedo/ But my real name is Mr. Earl." (Speedo swimwear, incidentally, dates as far back as 1927!)

Our Earl exclusively dates a "girl" named Lorelei (her fidelity is not described). Her name is that of a mythical mermaid whose siren song leads men to their watery graves. The only other thing we know about her is that she peaked in high school, where she was a "queen," possibly of the prom or homecoming. Since her life is all downhill from here, she has "nothing, really, left to lose." And so, nothing to live for.

He is a sailor; she, a mermaid. She is going down, and it seems she is going to drag him down to the depths of her eventual depression with her.

But why dwell on that? Right now, it's "sunny" and cloudless, with Nature's "birdies" and mankind's "radio" singing in harmony.

The song is important, to the degree that it is, for its music more than its lyrics. It pulls from the 1950s rock that Simon loves, and yet it is another successful foray into the Caribbean songs that entrance him.

An autobiographical reading of the song might be: Simon, as the stolid Navy man, his transistor radio still plugged into the crew-cut sound of the past. The island music is the siren, the seductress that pulls him astray... but what a way to go.

(From a sheer quality standpoint, there is an exponential growth from the lumbering "Why Don't You Write Me" to the breezy "Was a Sunny Day"... and in just three years.)

Musical Note: The backing vocals are by sisters Maggie and Terre Roche. With the addition of another sister, Suzzy, they soon became The Roches, an excellent and quirky vocal ensemble; Simon produced their debut album.

Next song: Learn How to Fall