Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK 50 Years Later: Songs Of November 22, 1963

"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind."
- Leonard Bernstein, November 25, 1963 
Friday, November 22, 1963 was the only day I missed during my freshman year of high school because I was in bed with a left ear severely infected from early-season practice for the school swimming team. I had been hospitalized briefly two years before for mastoiditis in the same ear, a potentially very serious ailment, so my parents insisted I stay home that day (really against my wishes since I was terrified of falling behind in algebra) and allow the antibiotics prescribed by Dr. McMahon after his house call the day before to take their effect.

Not long after 12:30pm in Chicago, my mother came into the room I shared with my older brother, her face ashen and serious. "Mrs. Schroeder just called," she said. "She heard on television that several shots had been fired at President Kennedy's car in Texas. They don't know if he was hurt or not. I know how important history is to you, and today may be a day that people will remember for a long time." With that, she helped me bundle up and go downstairs to the family room and turn on the television, the television that was absolutely never on during the day except on weekends for sports - which is why Mrs. Schroeder, a devotee of  the classic soap opera As The World Turns (which began in the Midwest at 12:30) and a good friend and neighbor who knew of the blanket of electronic silence that enveloped the Moran home during the daylight hours, thought it important to call my mother with the news.

My two youngest brothers, the only ones of the nine of us at the time (the tenth was gestating at that point) who were not in school yet, were already down for their afternoon naps, so my mother and I watched the events of the afternoon unfold as they happened, largely in undisturbed silence, broken only by my mother several times after the 1pm death announcement with "Those poor little children! Those poor, poor children!" in reference to Kennedy's daughter and son, both younger than seven and now fatherless. In the midst of the earliest hours of a developing national cataclysm, this was exactly the aspect of the event that for me was quite understandably what affected my mother most deeply.

But she knew also her many children well, and she was exactly right about my preoccupation with all things historical - at that point, primarily the day-to-day remembrances of the events of the American Civil War a hundred years earlier. The centennial of the delivery of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address had just passed on November 19th, and the memorials of that event were fittingly quiet and sober, in memory now almost a prelude to the darkness to come upon the nation so swiftly and so soon after.

For me, history was never a dry compendium of names and dates. It was rather a set of vivid stories of people and events and conflicts, much more like a great and engrossing novel or an epic film than a subject fit only for school time boredom and resentment. I can trace much of my love of folk music to my love of history, or perhaps I could better explain them as twin children born of the same colorful childhood imagination. Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers, for example, was not for me merely a minor footnote in colonial history but was rather a giant figure of daring romance whom I had met in the 700 pages of Kenneth Roberts' wonderful Northwest Passage, still among my all-time favorite novels. Similarly, "The Escape Of Old John Webb" was more than just a song that I enjoyed hearing and singing; it was an adventure of which I was a part, a tale in which it was I who was breaking locks and bolts to free old John, if only in fantasy.

Hence my mother's concern that since I was home, by chance or by an act of providence, I should be able to see what was happening on a day that indeed people have remembered for a long time.

I cannot say that I was thinking of songs or music during the dark weekend that followed the assassination - but others were. The producers and crew of the UK's satirical Saturday evening revue That Was The Week That Was hosted by David Frost, a show already familiar to many Americans from excerpts broadcast on U.S. network variety shows, quickly re-tooled the program to become a memorial to JFK. At the center of the shortened and somber broadcast was a song written that day by Herb Kretzmer and David Lee that they titled "The Summer Of His Years." It was sung on the show by regular cast member Millicent Martin. While no video of the actual show is currently available (even though it was broadcast on Sunday the 24th on American networks), Martin reprised her performance a month later on TW3's year-end review. The song begins at about 2:05.

I remember being stunned by this performance. I could not conceive that a song so articulate, so appropriate, and so complete could be composed, arranged, rehearsed, and performed so quickly after the event.

Across the continent from me in California, Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love were working on songs for a new album on November 22nd. Years later, Love remembered that

"The Warmth of the Sun" was started in the early morning hours of the same morning that President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The melody was so haunting, sad, melancholy, that the only thing that I could think of lyrically was the loss of love, when interest slips and feelings aren't reciprocated... though I wanted to have a silver lining on that cumulus nimbus cloud so I wrote the lyrics from the perspective of, 'Yes, things have changed and love is no longer there, but the memory of it lingers like the warmth of the sun.'

Love's commentary notwithstanding, I never saw much of a connection between the teen angst of "The Warmth of the Sun" and Kennedy's death - but others have, and the date and circumstances of its composition make it a necessary inclusion here.

Also in California on the same Friday, the Kingston Trio was in San Francisco working on its own new album, an uncharacteristically sober group of songs for an LP to be titled Time To Think. The news of Kennedy's assassination struck Trio member and songwriter John Stewart especially hard, and on Friday evening he tried to come to terms with his emotions by writing "Song For A Friend." When the album was released a few months later, the liner notes reported that the song was recorded on November 25, 1963, the day of JFK's funeral.

Stewart would go on to a long and distinguished if under-appreciated career as a singer-songwriter, but here at the age of 24 he is clearly still a journeyman learning his craft."Song For A Friend" has utter sincerity and some fine if sentimental imagery going for it, but it is a far cry from the sophisticated imagistic lyrics that would characterize much of Stewart's later work, including more than a dozen songs that referenced the assassination in one way or another. Compare "Friend," for example, to the recently-profiled "Dreamers On The Rise" from the 1980s, which though growing more directly out of Robert Kennedy's death also makes at least oblique reference to JFK's - and is a far better song.

In fact, all of these first three selections are probably of more interest as historical artifacts than they are as representations of great songwriting. I would not put either the Wilson/Love tune or Stewart's composition in the top 25 of the best songs of either of them.

"The Summer Of His Years" may be a bit of a different story, though as a topical song addressing a specific event it has probably outlived its ability to have the same kind of impact that it did at the point of its initial performance. Pop singer Connie Francis had a somewhat successful single with it in early 1964, but I thought that a far better recording was released by the Chad Mitchell Trio later that same year on its album Reflecting:

The CMT fused "Summer" with George F. Root's Civil War classic "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and if the former song does not rise to the same level of excellence that the latter does, the trio's medley works well as an expression of hope and the need to go on - and "Summer" bears up well while occupying the same track as "Battle Cry."

Roger McGuinn, who had cut his teeth professionally backing up the Chad Mitchel Trio under his real name of Jim, also reacted quickly to Kennedy's murder. He took an old public domain song that had been popularized around Greenwich Village in the 1950s by Dave van Ronk and Erc Von Schmidt called "He Was A Friend Of Mine" and according to McGuinn "[re]wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it's one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I'd always sung it." McGuinn's lyrics point directly to the assassination:

The formation of The Byrds was a year in McGuinn's future when he completed his adaptation; the band waxed it in November of 1965.

That same month, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, whose work is currently enjoying a long-overdue renascence, was touring England and wrote the first draft of what might be regarded as his magnum opus, "The Crucifixion." Where Ochs' previous best-known and best songs had been pointed, pithy, and often by turns uproariously satirical or prophetically angry, "The Crucifixion" is a long and sometimes rambling meditation that uses the Passion of the Christ as a metaphor for the contemporary propensity to sacrifice society's heroes.

While Ochs' larger point might have been philosophical, he also made clear that the parallels to Kennedy's death were intentional. "The Kennedy assassination," said Ochs, "in a way was destroying our best in some kind of ritual. People say they really love the reformer, they love the radical, but they want to see him killed. It's a certain part of the human psyche..." Robert F. Kennedy reportedly teared up when Ochs sang the song for him, sensing immediately the connection to his brother, whose death even a mere two years later had begun to assume the mantle of a martyrdom.

Probably the highest profile song to grow out of the assassination trauma appeared three years later in 1968. Again and like Stewart's "Dreamers" primarily a reaction to the murders that year of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Dick Holler's "Abraham, Martin, and John" continued the mythologization of the three title figures, and as recorded by former teen heartthrob Dion DiMucci reached #4 of American singles charts late in the year:

The commercial success of the recording resuscitated Dion's flagging career, and the overt and unapologetic sentimentality of the number seemed perfectly attuned to the needs of an American public that had grown understandably weary of the senseless and seemingly unending sequence of horrendous, violent shocks - the murders and riots and bitter, divisive civil strife - that assaulted the nation's consciousness through the decade and shook its self-perception to its very heart. It was far more comforting to picture four men who had died pointless, brutal, and bloody deaths "walking up over the hill" than it was to confront the awful truth that a republic of ideas had become, as it sometimes had at prior points in its history, a shooting gallery for the psychotic, the alienated, and the disaffected. Leonard Bernstein's "triumph of the mind" quoted above seemed a distant dream at best and mendacious and fraudulent lie at worst. Transgressions born in blood just could not be redeemed in song.

Yet through the decades since 11/22/63, songwriters have kept on trying to do so - or at least to come to terms with what did or did not happen that day. A number of websites have attempted to develop comprehensive lists of tunes that have touched on that event, the most nearly complete of which seems to me at be at (the site's name being an allusion to the "death of Paul McCartney" flap around 1970). Scores of songs and versions of songs are listed here, including quite a few from punk and indie and alternative rock bands ranging from major artists to the deservedly anonymous. Some of the selections there and on other lists border on the silly. Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence" may have been written in 1964, for example, but Simon is concerned with urban alienation, with how Walt Whitman's beautiful and vibrant 19th century "Mannahatta" - "The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!" - could have degenerated into the lonely dark alleys and mean streets of his later "The Boxer" - and neither Kennedy nor his assassination had anything to do with that.

That list also omits some of the songs and some of the renditions included here - not surprisingly, I would say. Most of the selections in this post emerged from the pop folk era, and the impact and importance of that style of music has been largely forgotten, however extensively its DNA remains in the American pop bloodstream. Could I add but one song to the list, I think it well might be this one - an obscure John Stewart number written around 1990 that expresses a sense of all that has been lost since that day in Dallas:

I am not sure that I have ever fully endorsed the sentiment of Stewart's last line, much as I have a visceral recognition of what he is trying to say. The world changed on that day, and something was lost that has never been fully recovered. To suggest as many have that our "innocence" perished in Dealey Plaza that day would be to ignore the reality of an American history filled with awful experiences as recent as the Second World War or as remote as slavery and the Civil War it spawned. We could hardly have been termed "innocent" in 1963, whatever else we were. And two generations of Americans - my students, many of them - have been born and come of age in the five decades since the assassination. Each has grown to maturity with its own sense of itself, of its country, of what the promise of America has meant to it.

I have thought long and hard as this anniversary approached about what it meant to me and to my country, and I have no simple or easy answers. I was not, as my friend Mike Peterson observed in his excellent posts on 11/20 and 11/22 in his popular Comic Strip of the Day website, personally traumatized by the assassination, though I remember being fearful and disoriented for some time afterward, and I wept unabashedly during the broadcast of the funeral on Monday the 25th - not at the rehearsed salute of JFK's son but rather at the sight of his two grief-stricken brothers standing in despairing silence at the eternal flame. Something was lost indeed - but what? Simplicity? Security? my own childhood? I cannot say in clear and uncertain terms.

But for me the answer may well exist somewhere in the pairing of these last two videos. In 1993 at a John Stewart show I picked up a CD called The Trio Years in which Stewart in the late 1980s had re-recorded some of the songs he had written when he was a member of the Kingston Trio 25 years earlier. One track hit me with overwhelming force, a song called "New Frontier" that had been the title song of a KT album released in early 1963 and that in its first incarnation had been the youthful Stewart's ebulliently optimistic response to the ebullient optimism of the early Kennedy years:

Twenty-five years later, Stewart heard his own song this way:

The forward-looking voice of the young man has evolved into the retrospective voice of the old, a progress from unquestioning idealism to, perhaps, a wisdom tempered by experience. The man who died in Dallas exactly fifty years ago as I write this - 12:30pm CST - left behind a promise unfulfilled, a promise touched upon to one degree or another in many of the songs here. The imperative to fulfill as much of one's own promise in that time allotted to us may be the one lonely, solitary meaning to take away from the otherwise pointless tragedy of a half century ago.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gordon Lightfoot: In Celebration Of His 75th Birthday

Gordon Lightfoot is 75 today, and that is a happy fact for any number of reasons - the first of which, of course, is that he is still with us to celebrate the day after his well-documented close brush with the Great Beyond in 2002. Lightfoot's survival of a stomach aneurysm, his five weeks in a coma, and his subsequent direction from his hospital bed of the production and remixing of his last studio album (Harmony, released in 2004)  are a testament to his toughness and grit, to say the very least. It is also a pleasure to see Lightfoot alive and kicking and in plenty good enough shape to accept all the awards and accolades and honors that have been heaped on him in recent years. This adulation has come now, perhaps, because as with several of his artist contemporaries (John Denver springs immediately to mind, as I note in the linked article), the pop music world in the U.S. had largely forgotten about Gord after his five minutes of fame (about five years, actually) in the 1970s, and Lightfoot's near-fatal illness may well have prompted people to dust off all those old tapes and LPs and realize what a treasure his career has been. 

Denver never lived to see the popular and critical reconsideration of his work (again, discussed at more length in the article above), but Lightfoot has accepted it all with characteristic grace, with obvious enjoyment, and with a quiet understanding of what his music has meant to two generations of Canadians and Americans. Lightfoot touches on all of this during this brief interview segment from the CBC in 2008 as he turned 70. It is a pretty good short intro to the man and his music as well:

I had my own say on Lightfoot a year and a half ago in a post that celebrated both the 50 year mark of Gord's career and one of my own favorite Lightfoot numbers, "Bitter Green." I do not want to repeat myself, so all I will say from that post at the moment is that of all the great folk-styled singer-songwriters of the Sixties and later - Paul Simon, John Denver, Joni Mitchell, John Stewart, Kate Wolf, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and so many more - Gordon Lightfoot remains my single favorite through the five decades since I first heard his music. Why that is so is easy to express. Even given the wide range of experiences, events, and ideas that his songs have dealt with, through all these years Lightfoot has remained faithful to his original vision, and that vision is closer to real folk music than that of probably any of his contemporaries except Paxton. The acoustic purity and deceptive simplicity of Lightfoot's recorded songs mark him to my way of thinking as a great artist, one who expresses the profound complexity of human experience within a genre whose dictates demand an accessibility and singability that would seem to obstruct such expression. Lightfoot accomplishes much while using rather little: a few acoustic instruments, usually, and his own voice, often unsupported by back-up singers or even double-tracked harmony. His entire body of work is concrete exemplification of the principle that less is often more.

It would be a fool's errand to try to assert what Gordon Lightfoot's best songs are, and God knows I would be hard pressed even to narrow my own favorites to twenty or twenty-five compositions. Yet of those, six or seven immediately suggested themselves to me to be appropriate for this article, mostly because these are some of the ones that I find myself returning to year after year and decade after decade to listen to, to reflect upon, and to play and sing for myself and my friends.

"Early Morning Rain"
This, of course, was the composition that put Lightfoot on the map, largely as a result of its appearing on two high-profile LPs. Canadian stars and Lightfoot mentors Ian and Sylvia recorded the tune even before GL did and named their fourth album on Vanguard after it, and the song's appearance on Peter, Paul and Mary's See What Tomorrow Brings record gave it its widest audience, since that LP reached #11 on the Billboard album charts and earned a gold record for the trio. Yet both groups softened the number, giving it a tinge of melancholy but downplaying the anguished near-despair of the song as Lightfoot wrote it - and as he performs it here, from 1979:

"Song For A Winter's Night"
As I mentioned in the "Bitter Green" post above, many of Lightfoot's most beloved songs are of love neglected or lost. This is one of the best of those.

"Affair On Eighth Avenue"
...speaking of which...

The entire BBC concert from which this performance is taken is available on YouTube and will be linked at the end of this article.

"The Minstrel Of The Dawn"
In which the troubadour sings of the life of the troubadour:

"10 Degrees And Getting Colder"
Combining the troubadour and lost-traveler-on-the-open-road-motifs:

"Did She Mention My Name?"
A rather more upbeat reflection on love and separation:

"Farewell To Nova Scotia"
Finally, a reminder that Lightfoot started out as a folksinger with a masterful way with a traditional tune like this:

Lightfoot continues to tour, averaging about one show per week, mostly in Canada but with frequent forays south of the border. It is a schedule busy enough to keep him sharp and engaged as a performer, and if time has diminshed the voice somewhat, the spirit is as willing as ever. Lightfoot usually demurs in interviews when people ask him what he thinks his legacy will be, and I understand that. As in the first video above, he thinks of himself as a working and touring songwriter and musician - a troubadour, in other words - and that is where his focus lies. But I closed the "Bitter Green" post with my assessment of his legacy, and at the risk of becoming self-referential, I would like reiterate it here: the last half century Gordon Lightfoot's music has embedded itself in Canada's cultural consciousness fully as much as has that of Ian Tyson or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young....Americans seem seldom to place GL on as lofty a pedestal as those others, possibly because of the very transparent emotion of his songs that make compositions like "Bitter Green" so beloved. But that transparent emotion is part of what has enabled Stephen Foster's songs to remain popular 150 years after their composition, and I'd bet that if you asked Lightfoot if he would rather be equated with Neil Young now or with Stephen Foster in a century or so, I think I know what he would say.
Four of the videos above are taken from an hour-long BBC concert special from 1972. It is a shortened version of the full show I saw that year during his "Summer Side of Life" tour. The DVD of that show is no longer available, but the entire television performance has been uploaded in HD to YouTube:

Lightfoot On The BBC: Full Show

It is well worth the time and concludes with a masterful rendition of "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," another gem.