Someday we’ll find it. #PlagueSongs, no. 18

This hopeful, aspirational song is the first musical number in The Muppet Movie (1979), the first and best of the Muppet films. I chose it because I figure we could all use a little hope.

Written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, “Rainbow Connection,” is one of two songs most closely associated with Kermit the Frog. The other, of course, is “Bein’ Green” (written by Joe Raposo).

“Rainbow Connection” was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Original Song” category. It lost, though the soundtrack (all of which was written by Williams and Ascher) did win a Grammy Award for “Best Album for Children.” Like The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Show (1976-1981), and nearly all of the projects the Muppets did, the soundtrack operates on many levels. Though the expression “for kids for all ages” may be a bit over-used, it’s also accurate here.

You don’t need to know “the sweet sound that calls the young sailor” is a reference to the Sirens in The Odyssey, nor any of the other “songs about rainbows.” And should you have questions, the song welcomes your inquiries. Its first two lines each ask a question, and by song’s end it has asked a total of eight questions.

The questions are deeply personal ones. There’s no one right answer to “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” nor to “what do we think we might see?” nor “Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?” You will have your answers, and I, mine.

I watched the film again on Sunday night, and I had forgotten how delightfully meta it is. Its metafictional playfulness sustain that questioning spirit in a comedic mode, but this song — like “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” sung by Gonzo late in the film — is one of sincerity and yearning. When I began to rehearse it, I at first found myself quite choked with emotion. So powerful is the song’s mixture of longing and optimism that I needed to pause amidst tears before proceeding. It truly believes we’ll find that “rainbow connection” out there, somewhere … even though (or perhaps especially because) it never specifies what a “rainbow connection” is.

When Kermit sings, “Someday we’ll find it,” I believe him.

Don’t you?

Here’s Kermit, singing the song in the title sequence of The Muppet Movie.

And here’s Kermit and Deborah Harry, performing the song as a duet on a 1981 episode of The Muppet Show.

Here’s Willie Nelson’s version (2001) — his performance begins at about 1 minute, 50 seconds into the video.

Sara McLachlan (2002).

Weezer and Hayley Williams (2011).

Bon Bon Vivant recorded this in March (2020) because, as they say: “In this time of limitations and disconnections we wanted to play a song about hope and connectivity. Recorded in a tunnel at a park, observing social distancing…except from eachother.”

There are many other versions of the song. I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself.

To learn more about Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets and the voice of Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, Dr. Teeth…), I highly recommend Brian Jay JonesJim Henson: The Biography (2013).

Why not sing a #PlagueSong? If you need ideas, I continue to compile this expanding playlist. And should you have a song in mind that I don’t know, that would be welcome!

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Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. #PlagueSongs, no. 17

When I started assembling my COVID-19 Spotify mix (at Boston’s Logan airport, 13 March 2020), R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” led the playlist. It still does.

At that time, I didn’t think I would actually try to learn it. The music isn’t difficult, but what is Michael Stipe singing? And could I learn these stream-of-consciousness lyrics? As it turns out, an even bigger challenge was figuring out when to breathe.

I first heard this record in the fall of 1987, in Matt James’ dorm room at Georgetown University. (I was not a student there; I was visiting my girlfriend.) And when I say “record,” I mean L.P. — or what people today call vinyl. My memory is that Matt had just bought the album, and we were both listening to it for the first time. Of the songs on side A of R.E.M.’s Document, I remember being struck most by “Exhuming McCarthy” and this one — the final song on the side. (The first song on side B would be the album’s big hit: “The One I Love.”)

Today, “representatives have engaged in a government for hire in a combat site” still distantly recalls President Reagan using the profits from secret arms sales to Iran in order to illegally fund the Contras, a terrorist militia working to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. But the lyric now more strongly brings to mind the treason committed by “President” Trump and the Republican Party, who conspire with Russia to “win” elections, and sell out their country to whomever flatters or pays them the most. “A tournament of lies,” indeed.

Its refrain also speaks to our current corona-era lives, as democracies erode, plague spreads, the climate unravels, and we feel… fine? Sort of? I find hope in Stipe’s absurdist juxtapositions and insistence that “I feel fine.” The song finds comedy in catastrophe. “Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom!”

I hope my rendition delivers a little mirth to your day.

Here’s the official video, in which the band does not appear.

Here’s a live performance from 1995, in which the band does appear.

And 1999 at Glastonbury.

Live music! Crowds! Another era…

Wouldn’t you like to perform a #PlagueSong? Of course you would. Well, you’re in luck: I continue to compile this ever-expanding playlist. And should you have a song in mind that I don’t know, that would be welcome!

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Live to see another day. #PlagueSongs, no. 16

This week’s #PlagueSong is more uptempo than last week’s, and not written for the acoustic guitar. Yes, it’s… the Bee Gees’ disco classic, “Stayin’ Alive.”

This is one of the earlier songs I remember. As a child, I checked the Saturday Night Fever record album out of the library, and then made a cassette of the songs I liked, which included most of them. As I recall, I omitted the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” because it was so long. Possibly also because it wouldn’t fit on the cassette. (I like the song now — though, yeah, it is nearly 11 minutes long.)

Listening to the song now, the sexist lines (“music loud and women warm”) land flat. They feel just tossed off, and needless. But I really like the danger and darkness of “Feel the city breaking, and everybody shaking,” and “Life going nowhere — somebody help me.” And the line “We can try to understand the New York Times‘ effect on man” takes on new resonance, given the New York Times‘ decidedly mixed record — extraordinary journalism like Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, and fascist crap like the work of White supremacist Tom Cotton, and prize-winning bully Bret “Bedbug” Stephens, etc.

So, the song may not have been intended for guitar, but Bruce Springsteen did a great version on his Australian tour back in 2014.

I assume you know the Bee Gees’ 1977 original. But do you also know the video? It features all three Bee Gees lip-synching as they stroll through an imagined evocation of New York City — though you see “New York Central” near the video’s conclusion, it’s actually a set at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. That said, the crumbling façades do nicely evoke the sense of a “city breaking” and the song’s pleas for help.

Of the three Brothers Gibb, only lead singer Barry Gibb is still alive today.

Keep social distancing, wearing masks in public, and washing those hands. Contrary to the behavior of some, we are still in a pandemic. If you won’t take your own health seriously, then please think of others: wearing a mask prevents COVID-19’s spread.

In other words, keep stayin’ alive and helping others stay alive. I’ll be back again next week.

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

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If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15

You’ll know Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart (1994) for its hit single “Missing.” But take a listen to a deeper cut from that record: “We Walk the Same Line” (Really, do listen to the original: Tracey Thorn’s alto is far more pleasing than my tenor.)

The lyrics’ evocation of love and worry resonate in this era of COVID-19 and uprisings against racist violence. Will the people you love return home safely? As Thorn sings, “I don’t need reminding / how loud the phone can ring / when you’re waiting for news.” Bringing us into the perspective of a person who is concerned and waiting, she then sings about how “that big old moon / lights every corner of the room.”

I appreciate, too, the tone of understanding. As she sings in the first verse, “And I bet you could tell me / how slowly four follows three.” She knows that you know what sleepless waiting is like. She understands you, too.

The declaration of faith — sung as much to the listener as to herself, I think — affirms that need we have right now, also expressed in “Lean on Me” (Plague Song no. 9). We need to hold each other up.

I don’t know enough about music to explain why the F7 chord works so well here, but it does. “We Walk the Same Line” is never too far away from an F7 or a G chord. They recur the most frequently — in both the verse and the chorus. At least in this song, landing on the F7 deepens the emotional experience a little bit, as when it comes on and lingers after “news” (in the line “when you’re waiting for news”).

Here’s a home demo that I heard for the first time while composing this blog post.

I’m struck by how similar it is to the final version. Even at the demo stage, Thorn and Ben Watt already had the lyrics and arrangement very clearly worked out.

Keep the faith, everyone. I’ll be back again next week.

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

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My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was one of the kindest, most empathetic people in human history. We need more of his kindness and care in the world. That is one reason why this week’s Plague Song is the theme to his children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001).

I think, these days, fans of the show are thinking of this 1969 episode where Mr. Rogers and François Clemmons (as his character “Officer Clemmons”) put their feet in the same wading pool. Lest this seem a small gesture, remember that U.S. public pools were segregated and, when forced to integrate, many cities simply withdrew funding from their public pools. This is one reason why far fewer African Americans know how to swim today.

Another reason I recorded this song is that, during this time of quarantine, I have seen far more of my own neighborhood than I usually do. Nearly every evening for the past 94 days, I have taken a walk through my neighborhood — and surrounding neighborhoods. I think many of us are seeing more of our neighbors these days. At present, these past three months mark the longest period of time I’ve been at home since April 2017. When I reach four months of quarantine, that will mark the longest period I’ve been at home for at least ten years.

Here’s Fred Rogers himself, performing the theme, from later in the run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I say “later in the run” of the show because my personal memory of the theme brings to mind a younger Mr. Rogers, from the early 1970s. And that brings me to a third reason for choosing this song: like “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (the third in this Plague Songs series), “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a song my mother still remembers. If I start singing it, she will sing along and will recall at least some of the lyrics. When I played it for her on Sunday (via Skype), she sang some of the beginning with me, and smiled. These days, songs from her childhood and my childhood yield the strongest spark of recognition.

A fourth reason (and, yes, I’ll stop after #4) for this song is that singing it makes me happy. Though I only started learning it on Friday (guided by this excellent video tutorial), I was not at all anxious about having a passable version for my Monday morning recording. I found the C dim 7 chord a bit tricky — I land on it well about 50% of the time, and not in the above video. But playing the song puts me in Fred Rogers’ headspace — a loving, patient, and forgiving place. He would be glad that I was enjoying his song, and would not mind if I strummed the C dim 7 chord slightly late.

I hope you enjoyed hearing this song as much as I enjoyed playing it for you.

Friends and neighbors, are you 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!

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This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13.

For my first punk “plague song,” here’s “There Is No Time,” from Lou Reed, one of the godfathers of punk. I chose it because it’s an urgent call to action.

The song is two decades and many musical experiments after his Velvet Underground days, where he explores some of the sonic territory later embraced by punk. But New York (1989) — the album on which this song appears — is a lean, powerful rock record. And this track is its most punk. In some ways, it’s more early Clash or Ramones than it is VU.

I identify with its urgency, its directness, and its capacity to surprise. I mean, it’s in the form of a manifesto (another reason I like it), but — despite the claim that “This is no time for learned speech” — it has lines like “This is no time for circumlocution.” But also lines like these: “This is no time to swallow anger. / This is no time to ignore hate.” And “This is a time for action / Because the future’s within reach.”

Doing Lou Reed’s Sprechstimme without a microphone was … not entirely successful. When I sing, my voice carries above the sound of the guitar. But playing loud punky guitar without amplifying my speak-singing means you have to listen a bit more closely. In the video, you see less of the guitar and more of my head because I’m trying to get my mouth closer to my iPhone’s microphone. As I say, not as effective as I’d hoped.

Apart from the inadequate amplification, it’s a fun song to play — exactly five chords that repeat in the same order (chorus included!). The main challenge here was getting the lyrics in the right order. They’re memorable, but figuring out their internal logic — why the “no time for private vendettas” verse might follow the “no time to swallow anger” verse — was my challenge.

Reed’s original is easily one of my top five Lou Reed songs — which is saying something, given that he wrote “Sweet Jane,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love,” and “Turning Time Around.” Anyway. Here’s the late Mr. Reed himself, backed by Mike Rathke on guitar, Rob Wasserman on upright electric bass, and Fred Maher on drums.

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!

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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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