Archive for Mixes

Love. #PlagueSongs, no. 12

It’s hard to know what to say that I haven’t already said or that someone else hasn’t already said better. And as for continuing this series of Plague Songs,… what to sing this week? My repertoire is limited, but I’ve tried to choose something apt for the current moment.

There are actually four songs in there. The two main ones are the O’Jays’ “Love Train” (1972), written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and Brinsley Schwarz’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” (1974), written by Nick Lowe and made famous by Elvis Costello (1978). The very end is of course from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” (1967). I’ve also interpolated a little bit of the gospel song “This Train” (popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe), altering the lyrics slightly. Keb’ Mo’s cover of “Love Train” alerted me to its allusion to “This Train,” and so credit to him for that insight and inspiration.

Looking to help?

As I say at the end of the video, love requires action. So, if you’re looking to help, here are some resources.

Here in Manhattan, Kansas, I’ll be attending the Protest at Triangle Park tonight (Tuesday, June 2nd) at 6:30 pm. If you’re local, I’ll see you there — well, as best I can. (We’ll be doing our best to socially-distance.) If you’re not local, seek the protest in your area or organize one of your own. Black lives matter. Fight fascism. Fight for justice. But please be careful out there.

This post is also part of the “Plague Songs” series, and so I’ll reproduce all of that information below.

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11

Given that I’ve played all of these on an acoustic guitar, you’d think I’d have covered a country song by now. But this song, co-written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose, is the first.

Williams recorded “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive” in June 1952, the single was released in November 1952, and Williams died January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. The song hit #1 on the country charts that month. It was the last song released in his lifetime.

I think my favorite couplet in the song is:

And brother, if I stepped on a worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.

I love the layers of humor embedded in those two dozen words. A dime is the smallest-sized US coin — to even notice that you were stepping on it indicates not just holes in your shoes but (likely) no socks on your feet. And there’s a comic fatalism in betting half of the ten-cent piece you’ve just found, when your odds are only 50-50 of guessing right. Merely noticing a regular dime beneath one’s feet would be remarkable; accurately guessing which side of a worn-out dime is up is, quite literally, a toss-up.

That said, the absurdity of a lawyer proving that you weren’t “born” but only “hatched” is funny on a couple of levels, too. Is it a commentary on a shifty lawyer or a shifty singer? That is, did the lawyer “prove” something impossible about Williams, or is Williams wryly acknowledging that his relationship to the “distant uncle” was “only hatched” — a plan he hatched, to claim the inheritance?

The song has been covered by many, including the Delta Rhythm Boys in December 1952.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1995.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 2005.

In 2006, the Little Willies (featuring Norah Jones and Richard Julian on vocals) recorded a version.

Steve Earle did a version in 2011.

And I’m sure there are many other versions out there!

Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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In the end, they’ll be the only ones there. #PlagueSongs, no. 10

If you haven’t really listened to the lyrics of Hanson’s “MMMBop,” you might be surprised to see me cover it as a Plague Song. In fact, I rather hope you are surprised by the choice. (Who expects to see a middle-aged professor performing a teen-pop smash from 1997?)

As you listen to the lyrics, do note that the Hanson brothers — Isaac, Taylor, and Zac — are singing about the fragility of human relationships, and their necessity in the face of mortality. Musically, it’s an upbeat, three-chord pop song. Lyrically, it advises you to “hold on to the ones who really care. In the end, they’ll be the only ones there.” When the song was released, the brothers were between the ages of 11 and 16. And, unlike most of the other songs on Middle of Nowhere, they wrote this song — the album’s biggest hit — themselves.

One thing I love about learning even an apparently simple song (such as this) is discovering that it’s always a bit trickier than I at first think. Getting in all (or most) of the “yeahs” and “ohhs” was like memorizing a nonsense poem, a sensation further enhanced by the nonsensical chorus. I also love the fact that such a joyful, exuberant song considers mortality and the vital but sometimes tenuous bonds of affection upon which we all depend.

Here are Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson in the song’s music video (1997).

Here’s the Fabulous Pink Flamingos’ cover (2007), the version which made me reconsider the song.

Here’s the Postmodern Jukebox cover (2016), the arrangement of which highlights the 1950s doo-wop that inspired Hanson to write the song.

And, yes, as you have already noticed (via the number at the top of this blog post), we are now at Plague Song number 10. When I started, I thought, oh, I’ll be doing this until maybe late May… early June? Now, I realize that I will be recording a weekly Plague Song until maybe 2021 sometime? I truly have no idea.

But I do hope you’re enjoying my attempt to push a little hope into the world. And I hope it inspires you to create some of your own. Sing. Dance. Write. Rap. Recite a poem. Perform a scene. Draw. Paint. Sculpt. Bake. Cook. Cultivate your garden. Build something.

As readers of Leo Lionni’s Frederick (1967) already know, art creates hope. And we can all use our creative talents — whatever they may be — to that end. So, let’s do it!

Seeking a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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If you just call me. #PlagueSongs, no. 9

Some of Bill Withers’ songs seem always to have existed. It is as if they were always out there in the ether, but needed him to bring them into the world. “Grandma’s Hands,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Lean on Me” — the song I’m performing for this week’s #PlagueSong.

Here’s the late, great Mr. Bill Withers himself, performing the song in 1973.

There are many cover versions of this song. Club Nouveau’s 1987 hit cover version may be the best known. But rather than populate this blog post with cover versions (as I’ve done for many previous “Plague Songs” posts), I’ll let you seek your favorites.

I prefer here focusing only on the songwriter, who passed away at the end of March — not from COVID-19, but from heart complications. RIP Bill Withers (1938-2020). And thanks for the music.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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So far away, but still so near. #PlagueSongs, no. 8

Day 53 of quarantine, and I’m covering… Robyn! On a related note, my apologies to Robyn and her fans.

As in all previous posts in this series, I strongly recommend you check out the original version — and, indeed, the cover versions by actual musicians. The song is far, far better than my performance conveys. Here’s the original audio. This is my favorite version, and the basis for my cover.

The music video, 2010. This is a different mix than the above version.

Lovely, spare, sad version recorded at the BBC Live Lounge in 2010.

Live performance from 2011. (Remember live concerts?)

There are more covers of this than I had realized. Here’s Kings of Leon’s 2013 cover, performed on the BBC Live Lounge.

An arrangement and performance by Pentatonix, 2017.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7

This week, a song from a different dangerous time that speaks eloquently to our present one.

“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of two hits from Bruce Cockburn’s Stealing Fire (1984). The other is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” “Lovers…” was the bigger hit in his native Canada, and “… Rocket Launcher” was the hit in the U.S. But “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is one of Cockburn’s best-known songs. Barneaked Ladies’ 1991 cover of the song was the band’s first hit — #16 on the Canadian charts. U2 quotes the “kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” lyric in “God Part II.” My own cover (such as it is) owes more to Cockburn’s acoustic version from Columbia Records Radio Hour, Vol. 1 (1995) than to the delightfully 1980s Stealing Fire version.

The 1984 music video, which is… very 1984.

Beautiful live acoustic performance from 2011.

Music video for Barenaked Ladies’ 1991 cover.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6

The final song on the Kinks’ Give the People What They Want (1981) is also one of the most hopeful songs in the band’s oeuvre. It has long been a favorite of mine, but I only just learned it for this Plague Songs series.

Unlike previous entries in this series, I had to record this on my iPhone. When using iMovie, either it froze/crashed … or the performer failed. So, that’s why the look and sound here is very slightly different than previous Plague Songs.

Would you like to hear a better version of the song? Of course you would! Here’s the Kinks’ original.

Here’s a great cover by Dar Williams from 1997.

Here’s Fountains of Wayne’s 2001 cover, introduced by Conan O’Brien in 2020, following the death of Adam Schlesinger (from COVID-19) on the first of this month.

And Pearl Jam!

Here’s a live Pearl Jam version, in which Eddie Vedder misses a few lyrics — but, hey, everyone’s enjoying themselves… and isn’t that what “Better Things” is all about?

BONUS this week! The Munich Blue Notes perform — in quarantine, from their home offices — Enya’s “May It Be.”

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5

🤦🏼‍♂️ After last week’s #EpicSkaFail (my apologies to music-lovers everywhere), I’ve chosen a song that I can perform adequately.

Composed by Ritchie Cordell, “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a big hit for Tommy James and the Shondells in 1967.

The song was again a major hit for Tiffany in 1987 — the singer’s biggest hit, in fact.

I’m more partial to the Tommy James version, but Tiffany’s has its fans. And these are just the best-known versions. Lene Lovich did a cool new-wave cover in 1978.

There’s also the Rubinoos’ 1977 power-pop version, Snuff’s 1989 punk cover, and Girls Aloud’s 2006 slick pop performance, among others.

Beyond offering you the silliness of a middle-aged man singing a teen anthem, I chose this song to remind you that you are not alone. We may be physically separate, but we can still be together — via phone, video-call, texting, emails, physical mail, or even by talking to a friend or neighbor from a safe distance. Chat from the balcony of your apartment building, or across the fence, or when you see them out walking. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. But we can be — and are — still here for one another.

If you’re seeking a #PlagueSong to perform, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

BONUS! Below is my personal mix of happy songs — the playlist that I turn to for cheery music. Many genres, and (as per my mix-making rules) only one song per artist. As of this writing, there are 116 songs and over 6 hours of music, including: The Muppets, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Eat World, Digable Planets, They Might Be Giants, P.O.S., R.E.M., Das EFX, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ennio Morricone, Ramones, Nina Simone, Paul Simon, the Clash, Beastie Boys, the Beatles, Blackalicious, Groucho Marx, Vince Guaraldi, Chet Baker, Robert Preston, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, the Mills Brothers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lizzo, Metric, Dick Dale, Jack White, Big Audio Dynamite, Pizzicato Five, Jurassic 5, the Jackson 5, the O’Jays, the Dixie Cups, Barenaked Ladies, Billie Holiday, Maurice Chevalier, Bruce Cockburn, Fats Waller, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Toots & The Maytals, Sly & The Family Stone, David Bowie and Queen.

🥳 Incidentally, today is my one-month quaranniversary. I started quarantining on March 14th. So, happy quaranniversary to me, happy quaranniversary to me… 🎶

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It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4

This week’s #PlagueSong is a cover of Prince Buster’s “Enjoy yourself” (1963).

But I first heard the Specials’ cover version (1980).

That said, Prince Buster’s version is itself an adaptation of Guy Lombardo’s 1949 version, which reached #10 on the US pop charts in 1950.

Prince Buster retains the chorus of the 1949 song (music by Carl Sigman and words by Herb Magidson), but offers completely different lyrics for the verses. The other big difference is that Buster’s version is ska — so, the beat is on the upstroke, or, if you like, on the second and the fourth. And, as my rendition (unfortunately but predictably) reveals, that rhythm was the trickiest part of this cover for me! So, do check out the other, better, versions!

This week, featuring another bonus Plague Song! Emily Wishneusky Petermann covers Tom Lehrer’s “I Got it from Agnes.” Keep those Plague Songs coming, Emily!

If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong and are seeking ideas, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!

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The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3

This week’s #PlagueSong is dedicated to my mother, Gloria Hardman. This is her favorite song, her motto, and very good advice.

The song is funnier when sung as Eric Idle’s “Mr. Cheeky” character (as it is in The Life of Brian). I suspect the song’s mixture of irony and sincerity is one reason it resonates with my mother, with me, and with so many others. Dark humor leavens its “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” optimism and makes that optimism somehow more plausible.

That said, in my performance (such as it is), I lean more into the song’s sincerity. When my mother sings it these days, she too draws more on its hopefulness than its irony. Indeed, she really only recalls the chorus.

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussycat”
(from Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871)

Poetry she heard as a child (Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”) and some songs — from her childhood, my childhood, and the life she lived in between — are most likely to elicit a spark of recognition. So, when I visited her earlier this month (during the week of Spring Break), I signed her up for Spotify, and made her a playlist of songs she still “knows” — evident via a reference either to just the chorus, or to some other lyric.

For example, when I’m about to take her for a walk, I’ll say, “Let’s grab your coat, and get your hat.” She replies, “Leave your worries on the doorstep.” Then we sing a bit of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” But Mom knows the lyrics to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the best: during my last visit, after we had sung it a few times together, she managed a rendition unaccompanied.

I chose “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” because it’s her favorite, because I don’t know when I will see her again, and because I wanted her to have a recording of me singing this song to her. At any time, one of the good healthcare workers at the “Memory Care” facility where she lives can pull up this YouTube video and press play. Though Mom once programmed computers and taught students and faculty how to use theirs, she cannot now operate the computer in her room. For that matter, she cannot find it.

Gloria Hardman and her son, Philip Nel.  Concord, Mass.  9 March 2020.
Mom and me. Concord, Mass., USA. 9 March 2020.

Shortly after my visit began earlier this month, The Commons — the Massachusetts retirement community where she lives — went into lockdown. I could continue visiting only because I was staying in a guest room on site. As of March 10, everything was cancelled: all family visits, all trips off campus, all events, all tours (for prospective residents and prospective employees). Since I left on March 13, no other family member has been allowed in to The Commons. Mom and I still chat via Skype at least once a week — I have set up my computer to mirror hers so that I can answer the Skype on her end. But, like many people with elderly relatives, I do not know when I will be able to visit again.

That is one reason I say “I don’t know when I will see her again.” Another reason is that she is receding further into the fog of Alzheimer’s. During this visit, she recognized me about 80% of the time. Will she know me when next I see her? Possibly. Possibly not.

Although I could write other, darker paragraphs on the subject of “I don’t know when I will see her again,” context already implies these paragraphs and so they can remain, for now, implicit.

More important is that she is and has been The World’s Greatest Mother. Truly, when it comes to mothers, my sister Linda and I won the lottery. (Yes, exactly — who knew there was a Mother Lottery? We don’t even remember buying a ticket! And yet, here we are. Remarkable.) Most important of all, Mom knows we love her, we know she loves us, and her love is with us even when she is not.

And so. We look on the bright side of life. We also look on the bright side of death — as per the song’s third verse…. And we sing songs via Skype.

Will you sing this one with us?

If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong, but lack ideas for which one, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist!

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