At the Drop of a Hat: A Dozen Essential Songs by Flanders and Swann

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann

We’ve had a lot of luck with records. Some of the songs that have made our names a household word — like “slop-bucket” — are the little series of animal songs that we’ve been writing.

— Michael Flanders, introduction to “The Gnu,” At the Drop of a Hat (1960)

The Bestiary of Flanders and SwannAs Michael Flanders says, the animal songs made him and his partner Donald Swann famous. The duo’s best-known such number may be “The Hippopotamus,” with its cheerful, waltzing chorus of

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow,

And there let us wallow

In glorious mud!

Indeed, I suspect that even a few Americans know this one. I say that because, if you are English, you’re very likely to at least have heard of Flanders and Swann. If you are American, well, that’s much less likely. (In terms of Flanders-and-Swann awareness, Canadians seem somewhere in between — more than Americans, but less than Britons.) So, to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with Flanders and Swann, let’s listen to “The Hippopotamus.”

There’s even a children’s-book version of this, The Hippopotamus Song: A Muddy Love Story (1991), illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. (I haven’t seen the book, and so can’t vouch for how well or poorly the song has been adapted.)

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, At the Drop of Another HatIf you’re unfamiliar with this duo, you might think of Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) as something of a British Tom Lehrer (b. 1928), but without the cynicism. As Flanders himself observes in At the Drop of Another Hat (1964), “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth — and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” They are satirists, but (usually) lack the aggression of Lehrer, favoring instead satire’s sense of play and a kind of wry, bemused judgment — or, in the case of songs like “The Hippopotamus,” more whimsy than judgment.

Though Lehrer famously set his “The Elements” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” the librettist and composer of The Pirates of Penzance had a much stronger influence on Flanders and Swann. Flanders was the Gilbert, writing nearly all of the lyrics, and Swann the Sullivan, writing all of the music (and the occasional lyric). With wit, wordplay, and complex rhyme schemes, the duo wrote over a hundred songs, and between 1956 and 1967 gave hundreds of performances in the UK, Canada, and the US — plus, in 1964, a few in Australia and New Zealand. George Martin (yes, the Beatles’ producer) produced their best-known albums. David Hyde-Pierce and John Lithgow are probably the duo’s best-known contemporary fans.

Never heard of Flanders and Swann? Or care to be reacquainted? Well, here’s my (admittedly subjective) list of essential songs, complete with audio, commentary, and (when available) video. The first was “The Hippopotamus Song” (above); so, moving to the second….

2) “A Transport of Delight”

"Wanted; a crew for this bus," by Jack Maxwell. Agency: Clement Dane Studio, 1955  Published by London Transport, 1955. (From London Transport Museum)A paean to the “monarch of the road,” that “Scarlet-painted London Transport, Diesel-engined, Ninety-seven horsepower Omnibus!” Swann takes on the role of driver, Flanders the conductor, and they sing heartily, with a mix of affection and mockery.

A few allusions of note. “Earth has not anything to show more fair” is from Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” “Army lorry” puns on the Scots song “Annie Laurie,” which includes the line “And for bonnie Annie Laurie, / I’d lay me down and dee” (“dee” being a Scots pronunciation of “die”).

3) “The Gas-Man Cometh”

The GALMI method has its flaws, as this song points out. (No, the song doesn’t use the expression “GALMI,” but that’s an acronym for “Get A Little Man In.” I’ve heard it on British sitcoms.)

4) “First and Second Law”

Showing their range, Swann and Flanders explain thermodynamics via a jazzy scat number. This is still the reason I know anything about thermodynamics. You see, Flanders and Swann are the music of my childhood. Though I grew up north of Boston Massachusetts, my parents lived in London during the latter half of the 1960s. They even saw Flanders and Swann perform there. In the U.S., borrowing the records from friends, my dad taped, on a reel-to-reel (the bulkier predecessor of the cassette recorder), At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat — though I later learned that he only taped the pieces that he liked. Fortunately, that was the majority of each record.

5) “The Gnu”

In the introduction (which I’ve omitted), Michael Flanders talks about the song’s inspiration, which involves being unable to park (or get out of his car) on the street where he lives:

The road itself is a bit of a snag. That road has got the steepest camber on it — you know, the old slope — of any road in London. It’s about one in three. If you try to park your car by the pavement, as people do from time to time, the car’s tilted, like that. Well now, that means you can only get this near-side door open a little bit, then the pavement stops it. If you want to use this door you can make a jump for it. Bad enough all up and down the road, but just outside where I happen to live, 1a (of course it would be), it’s just like the great North face of Everest. The thing’s right over on its side. You can’t get this door open at all, you’ve got to keep it full of petrol or it shows empty. I can’t use this door, I’ve got to get into this thing [Flanders’ wheelchair], you see, on the pavement.

He asks his local council about it, and they send a man round to take a chunk out of the road so that it’s level in front of Flanders’ house, thus allowing him to navigate from his car to his wheelchair and vice versa. However, ever time he arrives at his space, someone else is parked there — always the same car. “The number of this car,” he says, “I’ll never forget this number as long as I live. I’ve sat gazing at it for hours on end sometimes, thinking of nothing else. The number is 346-GNU.”

Gnu, a.k.a. Blue Wildebeest

In case you are doubtful, a gnu is a real animal. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a “South African quadruped (Catoblepas gnu), belonging to the antelope family, but resembling an ox or buffalo in shape; also known by its Dutch name wildebeest.”

6) “Misalliance”

In which two plants become star-crossed lovers, a silly premise with a plaintive melody that makes it curiously affecting.

7) “Madeira M’Dear”

A bit more risqué than the other songs here, “Madeira M’Dear” contains excellent zeugma, when one word gets used to refer to more than one word in the same sentence.  These particular lyrics often use the first word (the multi-referential one) in more than one sense. So, for example, “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, / Her courage, her eyes — and his hopes.”

Here are Flanders and Swann performing the song for American television in 1967. Flanders glosses “flat” as “apartment” for American viewers and — presumably to appease censors — changes “prowess” to “finesse.” Incidentally, if he looks a little breathless, that may be because he has only one working lung. The polio that put him in the wheelchair also took away one of his lungs.

UPDATE, 7 Aug. 2014, 1:30 pm: In retrospect, this song might better be classified among those that have not aged well (described in my caveat below). I direct readers to my conversation with Jonathan Dresner (in the comments) for precisely why.

8) “A Happy Song”

Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of a Hat (1957 version).This represents the absurdist side of the duo — also on display in such numbers as “Kokoraki.” If you enjoy Spike Jones or Mel Blanc, then “A Happy Song” is for you.  It’s one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat, each of which, Flanders explains, is his and Swann’s attempt to write a pop hit. Of this particular one, Flanders tells the audience, “We felt that really, on the whole, in this time of crisis and political conflict, what the world needed most was another simple happy chorus song, something which expressed the feelings of all the ordinary people all over the world, and in which everyone could join.” He then pronounces the song’s nearly unpronounceable refrain, and invites people to “join in, if you wish.”

9) “The Rhinoceros”

Another reason that Flanders and Swann’s songs are great for children and adults: they expand your vocabulary, as in this song’s refrain, “the bodger on the bonce.” As a noun, “bodger” is “one who bodges; a botcher”; as an adjective, “bodger” is (in Australian slang) a term for “Inferior, worthless.” “Bonce” is a slang term for “head.” So, then, according to the lyric, the rhino has something botched on its head. (All definitions courtesy of the OED.)

10) “The Armadillo”

Who knew that Armadillos had love songs? And with such plaintive melodies, too!  (The track begins, however, with an elephant joke — the previous song on the record is “The Elephant.”)

11) “Slow Train”

An elegy for closed railway stations, this one is surprisingly poignant. As Flanders says in his introduction,

Unusual song this for us, perhaps, because it’s really quite a serious song, and it was suggested by all those marvelous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names, all due to be, you know, axed and done away with one by one, and these are stations that we shall no longer be seeing when we aren’t able to travel anymore on the slow train.

Blandford Forum railway station in April 1963

TheGawain provides more detail in this great post on Flanders and Swann. As he tells us, in 1963 Dr. Richard Beeching

wrote a lengthy report on the profitability of British Railways (or lack thereof) and concluded that most of the rail network made no net contribution towards any profits that could potentially be made. He duly recommended removing about half of the route mileage and rather more than half the stations. The Tories implemented the report with unusual haste for any Government; Labour largely opposed it up until the moment when they saw the overall profit/ loss account of the nation and duly decided to continue.

This cross-party enthusiasm for Beeching left very little opportunity for the pro-rail remnants of the population to express any form of opposition except by attempting to prove “undue hardship” at closure inquiries. An examination of the railways which survived on this basis (prime examples include Middlesborough to Whitby, Inverness to Wick & Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, Glasgow to Mallaig and Plymouth to Gunnislake) show that in order to demonstrate that closing the local railway would cause undue hardship it was necessary to show that the area was devoid of alternative roads. As a result the minor rural dead loss railways going nowhere which deserved to be axed all survived, while the middling routes serving notable market towns found that the market towns were also served by roads, enabling easy closure of the railways.

The Government then proceeded to spend vast amounts of public money building roads to replace these railways which needed closing down because the Government didn’t have any public money available to spend on keeping them running.

That’s the context for this song. For more, see TheGawain’s piece or this very thorough Wikipedia essay on the song.

12) “The Sloth”

A comic ode to laziness.

A sloth

Yes, there are many other songs I could have included. Fans of Flanders and Swann will no doubt be asking: What about “Design for Living”? Where’s “A Song of the Weather”? And what about “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”?  Fair questions.  I decided to limit myself to a dozen, but I concede that there may be a better twelve songs to introduce people to Flanders and Swann.

A few songs have not aged as well — either because they’re topical, or because casual sexism or imperialism is (happily) no longer culturally acceptable. Remarkably, there are very few such songs. So, on the one hand, “The Reluctant Cannibal” suggests that people everywhere face the same problems, such rebellious children (who, in this case, “won’t eat people”) and parents baffled by their offspring. To their credit, Flanders and Swann also avoid pseudo-primitive dialect, singing in their usual accents. On the other hand, the humor of this piece depends upon the difference between “civilized” society and the more primitive “Tropics” (they don’t provide a specific location where these cannibals reside). The song is not in the realm of, say, the first line of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (“Chinks do it, / Japs do it. / Up in Lapland, / Even little Laps do it”), but the piece hasn’t endured quite as well as their animal songs.

The Complete Flanders and SwannInterested in learning more? I don’t think there’s an ideal Flanders and Swann “hits” collection. In any case, the live records include amusing spoken-word performances (mostly from Flanders), which would need to be either included or excised — in assembling this, I’ve mostly done the latter. You could use iTunes to create your own “hits” collection, and then (depending on your fondness for Flanders’ monologues) either retain or cut the spoken-word parts. In iTunes, you can do that under the “Options” setting of a song, by changing the start time and/or stop time.

Hat Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector's EditionOr, if you seek the full experience, then I recommend The Complete Flanders and Swann, which includes At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann plus some bonus tracks, and a great booklet featuring illuminating notes and commentary by Charles Fox.  I’ve just discovered there’s another collection with more music I’ve never heard — including many performances not in The Complete Flanders and Swann. Sadly, Hat-Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector’s Edition is out of print.

Fortunately, Flanders and Swann’s many admirers have gathered lots more information for you to peruse:

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“There Are Loads of Rules”: The Art of the Mixtape

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again […] A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick it off with a corker, to hold the attention […], and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, […] and . . . oh, there are loads of rules.

— Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (1995), pp. 88-89

I make a lot of mixes, and occasionally I post them on this blog. I’d originally planned to post many more of them, but . . . it’s fairly labor-intensive, and so I don’t. Recipients of these mixes have asked me how I make them. (Specifically, my friends Speed and Ted both asked me this question last month.)  So, here is my answer.

Westward, Oh: a mix made in July 2000 (the month I moved from Charleston, South Carolina to Manhattan, Kansas)

Above: a mix from July 2000, when I moved from So. Carolina to Kansas

1. No repeats. Since I began making these on CD (2003), I’ve not repeated any song across the three main mix series: uptempo (which I make the most frequently), midtempo, and quiet.  You could listen to all three series and not hear a single song repeated.  Indeed, within any given series — the kids mixes, birthday mixes, mixes on a theme (Summer, Halloween, Christmas/Holidays, Back-to-School, the end of the world), etc. — no song can repeat.

2. Only one song per artist per CD. But that’s artist, and not composer. You can have two Cure songs, as long as one is a cover. Technically, you should not have a Matt Berninger solo track if you already have a song from the National (the band for which he is lead singer), though this is a little more flexible — I bend this “should,” from time to time, including on the mix that I’m about to offer as an example.

3. There needs to be some connection between adjacent tracks.  So, on my most recent midtempo mix, “Everyone Says ‘Hi,’” here are the connections between the first seven songs. (If this is more detail than you really need, feel free to skip ahead to point no. 4.)


Everyone Says “Hi”

1)    Pennies From Heaven  RON SEXSMITH (2013)

Sweet Relief III: Pennies from HeavenThis beautiful song seamlessly mingles optimism and melancholy, cheer and sadness. Written by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston and first recorded in the mid-1930s, “Pennies from Heaven” has an introductory verse that often gets omitted (Bing Crosby’s 1936 recording includes it; Billie Holiday’s 1936 recording does not). Ron Sexsmith’s version — done for Sweet Relief III: Pennies from Heaven — includes that opening verse, which is one reason I chose it. The other reason is that it sets the tone for the rest of the mix, and that tone is … mixed. It’s neither joyous nor sad, but somewhere in between. (Perhaps, too, it’s why Dennis Potter chose the title for his teleplay/screenplay?)

2)    Heaven  SIMPLY RED (1985)

Simply Red, Picture Book“Pennies from Heaven” to this cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” is quite an obvious link: the title, and the fact that both are covers. It also continues the theme of emotional complexity. Though sung with sincerity (by David Byrne on the original, and by Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall here), the description of Heaven is ambiguous. “Heaven is a place, / A place where nothing ever happens”: does that imply pleasant solitude or endless boredom? “The band in heaven / They play my favorite song. / Play it one more time. / Play it all night long”: does this reflect the joy of getting to hear your favorite music or the annoyance of a popular song getting overplayed? I don’t know, and the song never resolves this tension. I chose the Simply Red cover because it’s a bit smoother, more soulful than Talking Heads’ original, and thus offers a more seamless transition from Sexsmith’s track to the next one.

3)    Little Vacation  VIC CHESNUTT (1996)

Vic Chesnutt, About to ChokeFor those who believe in an afterlife, Vic Chesnutt (1964-2009) is already there. With a sharper sense of irony than the Talking Heads tune, this one also describes a desired location in terms that make you wonder how desirable it is, really. Perhaps it would be better if I stayed home. Vacation is a metaphor for what he wants, and so is “scenic vista,” “a long awaited chemical buzz,” “a far off twister,” and “an unexpected run-in with the fuzz.” The first item in this list has more appeal than the last one, and the ones in between are more mixed (hey, at least the twister is far off…). Using the language of bureaucracy to describe a holiday is also brilliant: “Why don’t we have a little council meeting / And hash out something real?” He promises “Robert’s rules of order will be observed. / I’ll be the parliamentarian / with an unswerving dedication.” The ambivalent longing here is brilliant, plus (on a less important point) I like the fact that “a little old song that I want to hear” echoes “my favorite song” in “Heaven.”

4)    Everyone Says ‘Hi’  DAVID BOWIE (2002)

David Bowie, HeathenThis song and the next one both include the line that gives the mix its title. Both songs find a twinge of melancholy in the clichéd, well-meaning phrase — conveying the good wishes of those who are not here, bringing their absence into the present moment. So, the link to “Little Vacation” is the likelihood of using this very phrase while on vacation, and the sense, when traveling, of enjoying where you are but missing those who are not with you. The Bowie song addresses someone who has not just taken “a big trip,” but “moved away.” It’s not clear if the addressee is even among the living (another link to the previous two songs). The final line of the first verse is “Happened oh, so quietly, / they say” which could also be used to describe someone’s death. That said, the person could simply have moved away, left no forwarding address. She or he could be someone Bowie’s narrator will never see again. Philip Nel and Shahid Hoda, c. Sept 1987I have a friend like that. I last saw him in May 1989. He disappeared later that year, or perhaps it was early the following year. After making some inquiries, I learned why. So, Shahid, if you happen upon this blog post, I hope you are well. Please know that your old friends still think of you. Everyone says “Hi.”

5)    To All My Friends  JOSH JOPLIN (2005)

Josh Joplin, JaywalkerBeyond including the title line, this track also evokes this vocal lineage that begins with David Bowie, and continues through his spiritual offspring, the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler (who sounds a bit like Bowie), and then Josh Joplin (whose voice resembles Butler’s — even though Joplin’s song “Happy at Last” alleges “I sound like Michael Stipe”). As the “s” in the title indicates, this song addresses many friends who have passed out of Joplin’s life. The line “winter of our unpaid rent” (nice Richard III allusion, Joplin!) might refer to a former lover, or at least a roommate; “summer of unrequited love” suggests a hoped-for relationship; “the best minds of my troubled youth” (Allen Ginsberg allusion!) evokes the many musicians that Joplin may know. One could make a full mix just focusing on songs for missed friends — Neil Young’s “One of These Days” would of course be included, though isn’t on this mix because I’ve used it before.  So, instead,…

6)    Friend of Mine  STEVE MARTIN & EDIE BRICKELL (2013)

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come for YouAnother song about friendship, but this time to someone who is still here. Like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (another great song for a friendship mix!), this collaboration between Steve Martin & Edie Brickell talks about friends who help you survive: “When everybody lets me down / You lift me up again.” I also concur with the lyric’s thesis about life more generally: “The world is such a crazy place, / Full of joy and pain.” Yes. Life is beautiful and sad. This past week’s news has delivered much more of the sad, the painful, the heartbreaking….

7)    All Our Endless Love  THE BIRD AND THE BEE feat. MATT BERNINGER (2014)

Endless Love: Original Motion Picture SoundtrackAddressing not only friendship but love, this song continues the emotional resonance of the previous one, but moves directly into the intensity and fragility of intimate relationships. Amidst a deep bond, this one may also be coming apart. “I am falling to the rhythm of all your endless love” points both to falling-in-love expressed in the first verse (“I couldn’t breathe without you there”) but also to a falling-out-of-love, expressed in such lines as “Is this really ending?”


That’s the first third of the mix, and more than enough to convey the links between songs.

4. Variety.  Ideally (and especially on an uptempo mix), two adjacent songs won’t be too similar in style, though this isn’t an ironclad rule.  A link between songs (see no. 3) can be purely sonic.  In general, I think of the range as “from punk to show tunes,” by which I mean you can include swing, heavy metal, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, dance, folk, funk, reggae, R&B, trip-hop, novelty records, garage rock, new wave, blues, a cappella, jazz, J-pop, 1960s Italian film soundtrack music, gospel, and, yeah, punk and show tunes.  For an uptempo mix, all of these would need to be uptempo. For the quiet mixes, you’ll likely have more a cappella, classical, jazz (and no metal). Similarly, the midtempo mixes (such as the example given in no. 3) tend to have a narrower range (no metal there either…).

5. The mixes tend to be present-centered, but are not only present-centered. So, most songs are relatively current — from the current year or the past decade.  But it would be very rare to focus only on recent music. Generally, the timespan is the 1930s to the present, though occasionally there’ll be something from the 1920s or earlier. The mix above includes several more recent recordings of songs from earlier periods (“Pennies from Heaven,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Pure Imagination”), though I often use earlier versions.

6. Since mixes get played more than once, I try to pick songs that bear repeated listens.  I realize that this one depends on taste. Playing your favorite song once again (as in song no. 2 on the above mix) can be heaven… or can be hell.

7. I favor shorter songs over longer ones. If there is a long song, it’s likely to go last. This is something of a corollary to point nos. 6 (I don’t want to wear down the listener with a song that goes on and on) and 4 (shorter songs allow for more variety).

8. Beginnings: I try to start a mix with a good kick-off song — “a corker,” as Nick Hornby says. Sometimes, I will use a short spoken-word piece (dialogue from an old film or a musical, say).

Fiona Apple, Pure Imagination - Single9. Endings: I might slow it down a little at the end or I might not.  This can also be a place for spoken-word pieces, or perhaps the concluding music to a film. For the mix excerpted in no. 3, I conclude with Fiona Apple’s cover of “Pure Imagination” because both Gene Wilder’s original recording and especially her version bring to the fore some dissonance that undercuts the ostensibly optimistic lyric. Also, if you’re playing a CD in a car, it’s likely to repeat. Moving from “Pure Imagination” back to “Pennies from Heaven” works well. Both songs dream of something better, but they are just that — dreams.

10. Use all of the space. A CD holds one hour, 19 minutes, and 45 seconds. I try to come as close as I can to filling the whole thing. This became part of my criteria back in the days of cassette tapes: blank space at the end of a side (especially side A) was annoying because then you’d have to fast-forward to the end. Ideally, you’d pick a song that would conclude roughly as the cassette tape did. Sometimes, I would fade out a song slightly early or (to fill space) add a very short song just so that there’d be no (or very little) silence at the end.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)11. Good taste, which is nearly impossible to define. My mix-making guidelines ultimately rest upon my own taste, for which I direct you to this blog post on Carl Wilson’s excellent Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (and no, this isn’t Beach Boy Carl Wilson; it’s Canadian music journalist Carl Wilson).  That post is the most fully articulated expression of whatever the heck my taste is.

If I were to try to further clarify that, I’d note that I’m a big fan of cover tunes in general.  So, it’s unusual to have a mix that lacks a cover.  My favorite cover artists are Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox (if you’ve yet to discover them, stop reading this blog post now, go to YouTube, and start listening) and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (superlative punk covers).

In addition to punk, I love ’60s soul and R&B (Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, the Supremes), & the great American songbook (Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Harburg, Arlen, Fields and Kern, Warren and Dubin, etc.).

Musically, I came of age in the 1980s; so, the styles of that era have a strong hold on my musical imagination. This is likely one reason why the Wombats are one of my favorite contemporary pop groups: tight hooks, surprising lyrics (“Please allow me to be your anti-depressant. / I am prescribed as freely as any decongestant”).  I recommend their first two albums, and (I expect) the third, once it comes out, later this year!

As the quoted lyric indicates, I like words: I appreciate a sense of humor, an unusual turn of phrase, etc. Hence, my affection for novelty records. I also like a cappella. I’m a sucker for a good hook. I like pop, but I like it best when it’s a little off-kilter — an uptempo song on a melancholy subject, a downbeat cover of a happy song, an unusual or incisive lyric, a haunting melody.

My favorite band is They Might Be Giants.  Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the National.  Other favorite artists: Fats Waller, the Clash, Ella Fitzgerald, Hem, Chet Baker, Leonard Cohen, Moxy Früvous, Paul Simon, Mavis Staples, Warren Zevon, Billie Holiday, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Dessa (A Badly Broken Code is one of my desert island discs), Richard Goode (love his recording of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas).

Though I could ramble on and on about taste (indeed, I already have…), this post has run its course. Yes, it’s a highly subjective set of criteria for assembling a mix, but there is an internal logic to it, a sensibility (however idiosyncratic) that makes it all work. If you have strong opinions (and music fans tend to), please do feel free to express them, below.

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Where Is My Mind?: The National’s Influences

The National. Photo by Diedre O'Callaghan.

This mix goes out to fans of the National. Influences cited are mostly sourced, but partly speculative. That is, most of the selections here come from bands identified by National members (usually Matt Berninger) as an influence, but some simply sound to me like influences. So, of course, feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments, below.

Also, since this is a mix (as opposed to just a playlist), I’ve chosen selections from each band that work together, in sequence, as a mix. For any who may be curious, I will post my rules for mix-making in a couple of days. Anyway. Here are… some of the National’s influences.

1)     Love Will Tear Us Apart  JOY DIVISION (1980)                              3:26

The documentary Mistaken for Strangers briefly shows Matt Berninger singing along to this song. Of comparisons to Joy Division, Berninger has said, “I think a lot of that is the range that I sing in is similar to Ian Curtis. And I get a lot of Nick Cave. I think it’s mostly because of the vocal range that we get that. Definitely Joy Division, I know Bryan our drummer, from a drumming perspective, that’s been a big influence on him.”  (Incidentally, I debated putting “Transmission” on, but this song seemed a better way to launch the mix….)

2)     How Soon Is Now?  THE SMITHS (1985)                                       6:46

Asked by Cheryl Cheng in 2007, “Who are some of your early inspirations?” Berninger responded, “The bands that I first really started falling in love with were The Smiths, Violent Femmes, Tom Waits, Nick Cave…”

3)     Where Is My Mind?  PIXIES (1988)                                                  3:53

On YouTube, there’s footage of Berninger singing the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” at a karaoke bar:

4)     New Drink for the Old Drunk  CROOKED FINGERS (2000)          3:53

In his Rolling Stone “Top Tearjerkers” playlist, Berninger includes Crooked Fingers’ “Sad Love.”

5)     Jockey Full of Bourbon  TOM WAITS (1985)                                 2:47

In that same playlist, he includes Waits’ “Jersey Girl.” There are many Waits songs I could have included on this mix, but “Jockey Full of Bourbon” is my favorite and it fit well at this point in the mix.

6)     A Shot In The Arm  WILCO (1999)                                                    4:20

I’ve never heard any member of the National cite Wilco as an influence, but I hear echoes of Wilco circa Summer Teeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) — the records just before the band’s critically lauded pretentious mess, A Ghost Is Born (or, as I call it, Wilco Lays an Egg).

7)     Whisper  MORPHINE (1995)                                                              3:29

I’ve never heard members of the National mention Morphine, but they’re the most sonically similar group I know. In my iTunes, one playlist is “National & Morphine.”

8)     Sweet Jane  THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (1970)                    4:09

It’s more likely that the Velvets influenced the bands that influenced the National — i.e., we’re hearing their influence at one remove. Not incidentally, Lou Reed and Berninger both appear on Booker T. Jones’ The Road from Memphis (2011).

9)     Just Like Honey  THE JESUS & MARY CHAIN (1985)                 3:03

The Jesus and Mary Chain’s thick wall of distorted guitars is obviously a much bigger influence on the Raveonettes, but I’d be surprised if this band wasn’t somewhere among the National’s influences.

10)   Pretty in Pink  THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS (1981)                          4:00

The National cover “Pretty in Pink” on The Daytrotter Sessions (2007). Also: listen to the lyrics. It’s a much darker and more interesting song than its association with the Molly Ringwald film would lead you to believe. The National’s cover brings out the song’s sad narrative quite well — “All of her lovers all talk of her notes, / and the flowers that they never sent. / Wasn’t she easy? And isn’t she pretty in pink.”

11)   Flavor of the Month  THE POSIES (1993)                                      2:36

I have a vague notion that members of the National have cited the Posies as an influence, but I can’t find my source.

12)   Last Nite  THE STROKES (2001)                                                      3:20

Matt Berninger: “The Strokes have influenced more bands in the last ten years than even the artists I mentioned [Waits, Cave, Nirvana, Smiths] in all 25 years.”

13)   Uptown Again  THE AFGHAN WHIGS (1998)                                  3:11

Afghan Whigs, 1965Berninger is an avowed Afghan Whigs fan. Of Greg Dulli (the Whigs’ lead singer & main songwriter), Berninger says “Dulli just had a way of being so dark and almost brutal in some of his observations of himself and his dark side of romance, but he was able to articulate it in unbelievably powerful ways. There are people like that, who happily dig into the very uncomfortable personal exposure in a way. It’s not wallowing. It’s some sort of cathartic recognition of the sad and dark sides of our minds and hearts. I think it’s a healthy way to deal with that stuff.”

14)   First We Take Manhattan  R.E.M. (1991)                                        6:05

Although this is R.E.M. covering a Leonard Cohen song, I see an affinity between R.E.M.’s original work and the National’s. They’re both rock bands with a vocalist & lyricist who writes suggestive but elliptical lyrics. They’re also willing to develop more sophisticated arrangements, bringing in strings & piano.

15)   False Alarm  SLOAN (2003)                                                             3:48

Sloan’s songs are typically more power pop than the National’s (and I’ve not seen the National cite Sloan as an influence), but the elements of longing (“Always looking for reasons to walk on your street”) secure it a place on the mix. In sum, this is Sloan at their most National-esque, and (arguably) not as strong a choice as the other songs on this mix.

16)   Game of Pricks  GUIDED BY VOICES (1995)                                2:15

Berninger listens to Guided by Voices, and put “Learning to Hunt” on the aforementioned Rolling Stone playlist.

17)   I Can’t Forget  LEONARD COHEN (1988)                                      4:32

In September 2011, Berninger told The Phoenix’s Michael Christopher, “when I was in high school I became obsessed with Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.”

18)   Traveling Light  TINDERSTICKS & CARLA TORGERSON (1995)       4:50

I’m not sure whether the National considers Tindersticks an influence, but many reviews make the comparison between the two bands. With their baritone vocals and fondness for orchestral arrangements, it’s easy to see why.

19)   Love Letter  NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS (2001)                       4:09

Asked about his influences, the first two that Matt Berninger mentions tend to be Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

20)   Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten  DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES: STUTTGART CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (1984)                        5:08

Dennis Russell Davies: Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Arvo Pärt: Tabula RasaThis mix has placed too much emphasis on Berninger. This last song highlights the band’s guitarist, Bryce Dessner, who is also a classical composer. I’m convinced that he and his brother Arron Dessner’s work in non-rock music are key to the National’s sound, bringing in atypical rhythms and arrangements. Bryce Dessner has worked with and performed the works of minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I don’t know what he thinks of fellow minimalist Arvo Pärt, but this track seemed an apt way to conclude.

There are many other bands who might (and perhaps should) have been included on this speculative compilation, including Nirvana, Radiohead, and Depeche Mode. (Some songs cut from earlier versions of this mix: “Lithium,” “Come As You Are,” “No Apologies,” “No Surprises,” “High and Dry,” “Policy of Truth,” “Enjoy the Silence.”) But to make this collection work as a mix (and one that would fit on a single CD), I had to cut some things.

Credits: Photo of the National by Diedre O’Callaghan, taken from “The National on World Cafe” (WXPN).

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: The Mixes

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineBecause every revolution needs a soundtrack, I assembled a couple of CDs of songs for the drive to and from Topeka, for yesterday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. True, the drive is not in fact that long (only an hour each way), but creating playlists is a form of thinking. It’s something I do for fun. Really.

There are only YouTube recordings below. Nearly all of these songs are commercially available — i.e., you can buy individual tracks via iTunes. (I think only the Steinski track at the very end is not on iTunes.  And the Public Enemy recording that opens the mix is not available as an individual track: you need to purchase the entire Do the Right Thing soundtrack.)


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #1

1)     Fight the Power (Soundtrack Version)  PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)                  5:23

I used the version from the Do the Right Thing Soundtrack, which includes Take 6′s intro (of the fictional radio station’s call letters).

2)     Know Your Rights  THE CLASH (1982)                                                3:42

From the Clash’s final studio album, Combat Rock. (No one counts the later Cut the Crap — not even the Calash.) “You have the right to free speech… as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

3)     1984  DAVID BOWIE (1974)                                                             3:27

From Diamond Dogs, which contains a number of songs written for an aborted stage musical of 1984.

4)     Exhuming McCarthy  R.E.M. (1987)                                                       3:22

This song appears on Document, and includes an audio clip from Joseph N. Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings.

5)     There Is No Time  LOU REED (1989)                                                 3:47

Lou Reed gets angry, on New York.

6)     Get Up, Stand Up  BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (1973)                      3:19

7)     You Won’t Stand Alone (ska-sized)  D.O.A. (2004)                                  2:06

8)     Stand  SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (1969)                                            3:07

9)     Power to the People  CURTIS MAYFIELD (1974)                                  3:29

This is the demo version. I used the album version (from Sweet Exorcist).

10)   People Have the Power  PATTI SMITH (1988)                                      5:10

11)   Give the People What They Want  THE O’JAYS (1975)                           4:11

12)   The Stone (Revolution!)  RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2012)            3:10

13)   Revolution  NINA SIMONE (1969)                                                      4:41

One of the greatest Beatles covers. Indeed, “cover” is the wrong word. Simone transforms Lennon’s cynical anti-revolutionary song into a genuine call for revolution.

14)   I Fought the Law  DEAD KENNEDYS (1984)                                        2:19

In addition to changing the lyrics to “I fought the law / And I won,” the Dead Kennedys also include such new lyrics as: “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends. / That’s how this country’s run” and “You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge.”

15)   All You Fascists  BILLY BRAGG & WILCO (2000)                                  2:43

Woody Gurthrie’s lyrics, with Bragg’s vocals and Wilco’s music. Here’s a version with Billy Bragg playing the song on his own.

16)   This Land Is Your Land  SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (2004)      4:37

Magnificent soul arrangement of the Woody Gurthrie classic. Here’s an acoustic version (though I put the original album version on the mix, of course).

17)   Woody Guthrie  ALABAMA 3 (2002)                                                  4:18

18)   People Gotta Be Free  KEB’ MO’ (2004)                                               3:46

Great cover of the Rascals’ original. I couldn’t find Keb’ Mo’s version on YouTube; so, here are the Rascals:

19)   International  JIM’S BIG EGO (2008)                                                    3:37

20)   World Upside Down  JIMMY CLIFF (2012)                                           3:10

21)   Talking Union  THE ALMANAC SINGERS (1941)                                  3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

22)   Redemption Song  JOE STRUMMER & THE MESCALEROS (2003)           3:28

From his final solo record, the Clash’s Joe Strummer covers Bob Marley.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #2

1)     The Preamble  LYNN AHRENS (1976)                                                 3:00

From Schoolhouse Rock!

2)     We the People  THE STAPLE SINGERS (1972)                                      3:52

Here’s a performance from Soul Train.

And here’s an excerpt from a promotional film.

3)     Fight the Power  BARENAKED LADIES (1993)                                     4:06

Barenaked Ladies cover Public Enemy! Yes, you read that correctly. It’s actually a great cover. Despite the occasionally goofy turn (“Nutty Buddy was a hero to most”?), I think they otherwise are quite in earnest. In some ways, you might see this as an antecedent to BNL’s “Fun and Games,” one of the most trenchant musical critiques of the Bush administration.

Recorded for Gordon, the cover appears on (of all places) the Coneheads soundtrack. Here are BNL performing it live, in 2009.

4)     American Idiot  GREEN DAY (2004)                                                    2:54

5)     My Favorite Mutiny  THE COUP feat. BLACK THOUGHT and TALIB KWELI (2006)                                                                                  4:36

Here’s the full version.

And here’s an excerpt from a live performance.

6)     I Predict a Riot  KAISER CHIEFS (2005)                                               3:53

7)     Harder Than You Think  PUBLIC ENEMY (2007)                                   4:10

8)     Seven Nation Army  THE WHITE STRIPES (2003)                                 3:52

9)     I Won’t Back Down  TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (1989)        2:57

10)   You Haven’t Done Nothin’  STEVIE WONDER (1974)                           3:29

11)   Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. DESSA (2009)                                      3:15

12)   Clampdown  THE CLASH (1979)                                                         3:52

“We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers.” Ah, so many great lyrics in this one, from London Calling, which is (to my mind) the best Clash record.  “Let fury have the hour. / Anger can be power, / If you know that you can use it.”

13)   Freedom  JURASSIC 5 (2002)                                                             3:19

14)   This Little Light  MAVIS STAPLES (2007)                                              3:23

This appears on We’ll Never Turn Back, which — along with London Calling (see track 11, above) is one of my Desert Island Discs.  Here’s a live recording.

15)   Freedom  THE ISLEY BROTHERS (1970)                                             3:39

16)   I Should Be Allowed to Think  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)            3:08

Begins by quoting Ginsburg’s “Howl.”

17)   Express Yourself  CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD RHYTHM BAND (1972)     3:52

18)   Try This at Home  FRANK TURNER (2012)                                         1:53

19)   Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)  SHAD (2013)                                          3:32

Great song about education, immigration, family, and much more.

20)   Motion Movement  BLUE SCHOLARS (2004)                                       3:47

21)   You Can Get It If You Really Want It  DESMOND DEKKER (1970)         2:40

22)   You Get What You Give  NEW RADICALS (1998)                                5:02

23)   Silent Partner (Peace Out)  STEINSKI (2006)                                         0:52

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline

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State Songs

State SongsLooking for a mix that has one song for each of the 50 U.S. states?  This isn’t it.  Nor are any of these official state songs. (Or, at least, I don’t think they are.)

Instead, this mix has 24 songs (one each for 23 states, plus one for DC), and some of them refer to multiple states. I’m well aware that many states are missing, and that I’ve skipped some obvious songs — Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” the B-52s’ “Private Idaho,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” to name but three.  Similarly, one could make several mixes worth of songs devoted to New York alone, but I’ve stuck to one song per state.  Finally, I’ve limited the length to only what would fit on a single CD.

So here’s one hour and nineteen minutes of music that references U.S. states. Some songs celebrate, others criticize, and still others merely allude to the state in question. Enjoy!

1) Rhode Island Is Famous for You  Erin McKeown (2006)      2:46

Written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz for the musical Inside U.S.A. (1948), this song gained popular attention via Blossom Dearie’s 1960 recording. McKeown’s appears on her delightful album of covers, Sing You Sinners. Though I’ve included it for Rhode Island, it references 20 other states: Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey, Louisiana, Montana, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Dakota (it doesn’t specify whether North or South).

2) I Like the Likes of You  Kate Baldwin (2009)      2:02

Composed by E. Y. Harburg and Vernon Duke for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1944, it only references Connecticut (and, more briefly, the Grand Canyon). I’ve always loved the way the song’s language evokes the giddiness of falling in love, and even finds the time to skewer love-song clichés (in the spoken section). And Kate Baldwin’s delivery is perfect.

3) B.O.S.T.O.N.  Bleu (2010)      3:48

This is here for Massachusetts (my home state), but it also name checks Wisconsin (Green Bay), Virginia, and California (L.A.).  Catchy power-pop celebration of Boston. I also included it in my “For Boston” mix, back in April.

4) Maine  John Linnell (1999)      2:07

I stole this mix’s title from John Linnell’s State Songs, the EP on which “Maine” appears.  If this sounds a bit like a They Might Be Giants song, that’s because Linnell is half of TMBGs.

5) Manhattan  Ella Fitzgerald & Buddy Bregman Orchestra (1956)      2:49

Composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for Garrick Gaieties (1925), this song takes you on a tour through New York’s best-known borough. Because there are so many songs about New York, it was challenging to choose just one song for this state. “Harlem Shuffle,” “42nd Street,” “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” “Boy from New York City,” “Theme from New York, New York,” “Take the A Train” are but a few others that were in the running.

6) I’m From New Jersey  John Gorka (1991)      3:08

On this mix, some songs celebrate and others criticize — except for this one, which does a little of both.  It appears on Gorka’s Jack’s Crows. Bonus: it also references Texas and Ohio.

7) Pennsylvania 6-5000  Glenn Miller (1940)      3:14

I like that this song doesn’t really say anything at all about Pennsylvania. It’s just a telephone exchange. The absurdity appeals to me. Also in the running for this state were Standard Fare’s “Philadelphia” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

8) Delaware  Perry Como (1959)      2:19

Yes, the entire song is silly puns on state names. Believe it or not, this was a no. 22 pop hit in March of 1960.  In case you’re keeping track, the other states in this song are New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, Minnesota, Oregon, Alaska, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, and Missouri.

9) Washington, D.C.  The Magnetic Fields (1999)      1:54

The nation’s capitol — which has no representation at the federal level — here gets celebrated with a rousing cheer and a snare drum. From 69 Love Songs.

10) Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina  Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1941)      2:43

I don’t know anything about the songwriters on this one. They’re identified as S. Skylar, A. Shaftel, B. Cannon. What else have they written? The song appears on Let Me Off Uptown!: Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa.

11) My City Was Gone  Pretenders (1982)      5:25

“I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone,” sings Chrissie Hynde, the composer of this song. It appears on the Pretenders’ classic record, Learning to Crawl.  Below, the 1995 incarnation of the group performs the song … in Ohio.

12) Michigan Militia  Moxy Früvous (1997)      3:18

The late, great Canadian quartet (active in the 1990s) satirizes a right-wing American paramilitary group which, according to Wikipedia, lasted from 1994 to 2000, and then was re-formed in 2009. I’m not sure what relationship the current Michigan Militia has to the one portrayed in this song. The song appears on Moxy Früvous’s Go to the Moon.  Below, a live performance from a 1998 telethon:

13) Down in Mississippi  Mavis Staples (2007)      4:58

Yes, that is Ladysmith Black Mambazo on backing vocals. A powerful song from one of the greatest albums ever recorded: We’ll Never Turn Back. It’s one of my desert island discs. Staples’ voice, Ry Cooder’s clean production, and many great musicians (including Cooder himself).  Below, a live performance from 2008:

14) Tennessee  Arrested Development (1992)      4:33

Written by Speech (who also is doing the main rap here), “Tennessee” was a top-10 single from the group’s successful debut album (which also featured “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal”). The song also references Georgia — in particular, Holly Springs, and Peachtree (a Street in Atlanta).  Below, the video:

15) Midnight Train to Georgia  Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973)      4:40

Another popular hit (number 1 on the pop charts), but from twenty years earlier. One of the few songs to be the subject of a Doonesbury strip:

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury, 28 July 1974

16) The Train from Kansas City  The Shangri-Las (1965)      3:21

Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, this song is on the mix to represent Missouri. There is also a smaller Kansas City in Kansas, but the larger, better-known city is in Missouri.

17) On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe  Judy Garland (1946)      3:10

Written by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren for the musical film The Harvey Girls, this song is here for Kansas (Atchison, Topeka), though I suppose you could add in New Mexico (Santa Fe).

18) Iowa Stubborn  Ensemble (1962)      2:00

“See you at the picnic. You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself.” Meredith Willson’s salute to his home state of Iowa, as performed in the opening minutes of The Music Man — one of the truly great musicals.  In addition to many memorable tunes, it’s just saturated with language. The lead role (Professor Harold Hill) has to be one of the most challenging in all of musical theatre.  Here’s Robert Preston, giving his definitive rendition in the 1962 film:

19) Oklahoma (Finale)  Gordon MacRae, Charlotte Greenwood, James Whitmore, Shirley Jones & Jay Flippen (1955)      3:08

From the musical (stage, 1943; film, 1955) by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein.

20) That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas) Lyle Lovett (1996)      4:55

“But Texas wants you anyway.” From Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada.  Below, an early live version (from Austin City Limits, in the early 1990s):

21) Louisiana 1927  Randy Newman (1974)      2:58

From Newman’s Good Old Boys.

22) Sal Tlay Ka Siti  Nikki M. James (2011)      3:42

A (sort-of) tribute to Utah, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon.

23) Viva Las Vegas  The Grascals with Dolly Parton (2009)      3:15

Originally performed by Elvis Presley in the 1964 film of the same name, this song (written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus) here gets a lively country treatment. Indeed, I like this version better than Elvis’s original.

24) California  Rufus Wainwright (2001)      3:24

“You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed.”  From Wainwright’s Poses.  Another state for which there are many songs we might use.  I like this one because it’s interested in the idea of California, but it’s also somewhat bemused by it.

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For Boston: A Mix

Boston Marathon logoBoston is the U.S. city that feels most like home to me. I grew up north of the city, in Lynnfield. Some of my family still live in the Boston area, though most are spread out around the globe. Indeed, I haven’t lived in Massachusetts in nearly three decades. But it’s still where I’m from.

In a city that embraces its diverse population (and their equally diverse opinions), the Boston Marathon is something (nearly) everyone agrees on.  Runners from all over the world compete.  Local TV broadcasts the race, which is always held on Patriots’ Day — a holiday commemorating the first battles of the American Revolution.  It’s celebrated in Massachusetts, but not nationally. I remember, as a kid, staying home from school, and watching the Boston Marathon on TV. It’s probably one reason that my mother, sister, and I have all run a marathon. (Or to be more accurate, my mother and I have each run one marathon; my sister has run over a dozen.) So, today’s bombing also hits close to home because I and my family know what it means to run a marathon.

As of this writing, I don’t know why some sociopath (or group of sociopaths) decided to bomb the city. I assume that the choice of Patriots’ Day was not an accident.

If you want to help,…

For information, I’ve found these useful:

Finally, here is a salute to Boston in song. It’s one of America’s great cities, and if you haven’t been there yet, please include it in future travel plans. As President Obama said today, “Boston is a tough and resilient town.” It and its people will recover from this.  So. Following is a mix of songs that either reference Boston or are by a band from Boston.

For Boston: A Mix

1. M.T.A. The Kingston Trio (1959)            3:16

A song that will tell you where the “Charlie card” (used for travel on the T, Massachusetts’ public transit system) got its name.

2. Yankee Doodle   Tex Ritter (1952)            1:28

An allusion to the city’s revolutionary past, performed by the father of John Ritter.

3. For Boston   Dropkick Murphys (2001)            1:33

Great Boston band, rousing Boston song.  Appears on the aptly titled Sing Loud, Sing Proud!

4. I’m Shipping Up to Boston   Boston Pops Orchestra (2009)            2:59

Also a Dropkick Murphys song (with lyrics by Woody Guthrie), but I didn’t want two songs by the same artist on the mix and I did want to include the Boston Pops.  So… here’s their version!  And, below, the Dropkick Murphys:

5. Massachusetts   Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa (1942)            3:16

“Boston, if you please, Massachusetts.”  From Let Me Off Uptown!

6. Dirty Water   Standells (1965)            2:49

“Love that dirty water, aw, Boston you’re my home” sing the Standells, a band from … Los Angeles.  From the great Nuggets collection.

7. B.O.S.T.O.N.   Bleu (2010)            3:48

A song about Boston from a singer-songwriter who studied at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.

8. Rock & Roll Band   Boston (1976)            3:00

“We were just another band out of Boston.” Tom Scholz (the creative force behind the band) is actually from Toledo, Ohio.  However, at the time of recording this album, he lived and worked in the Boston area.

9. Let’s Face It  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (1997)            2:33

The quintessential Boston band has a message for the haters: “Be racist, be sexist, be bigots, be sure: We won’t stand for your hatred.”  An appropriate song for the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage.  More recently, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he would not let the Chick-fil-A franchise (owned by anti-gay bigot Dan Cathy) open a restaurant in the city. He later acknowledged that he didn’t legally have the power to stop them, but his claim that “There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail” resonated with those of us who support human rights.

10. Livin’ on the Edge  Aerosmith (1992)            6:20

Perhaps the most famous band from the city, Aerosmith are not famous for songs with a political message.  But, in this one, they have a caustic comment for bigots: “If you can tell a wise man by the color of his skin, then mister you’re a better man than I.”

11. The Fire Down Below   Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (1976)            4:28

To give credit where it’s due, this song — and a few others here — is inspired by a medley of snippets of songs that reference Boston which (Boston’s) WBCN used to play as part of their station identification.

12. Freeze-Frame   The J. Geils Band (1981)            3:58

No references to Boston in this song, but these guys were one of the great Boston bands. People know them for this album (Freeze-Frame), but Blow Your Face Out (1976) is one of the all-time great live albums.

13. Ladies of Cambridge   Vampire Weekend (2007)            2:39

Just across the Charles River from Boston, is Cambridge (though the band is from NYC).

14. Here Comes Your Man   Pixies (1989)            3:22

Another classic song from a Boston band.

15. Pretty In Pink   The Dresden Dolls (2006)            3:58

And still another, though covering a song by the (British) Psychedelic Furs.

16. Sweet Little Sixteen   Chuck Berry (1958)            3:02

“They’ll be rockin’ in Boston.”  From The Great Twenty-Eight.  One day soon, Boston will be rocking with joyous songs — like this one.

17. Hey Nineteen   Steely Dan (1980)            5:10

Another song that references Boston and to which the aforementioned WBCN medley uses.

18. Let’s Do It   Joan Jett & Paul Westerberg (1995)            2:23

In this punk cover of the Cole Porter classic, we learn that “In Boston, even beans do it.”

19.Roadrunner   The Modern Lovers (1976)            4:09

Founded by (Natick, Mass. native) Jonathan Richman, the Modern Lovers got their start in Boston.  In February, Massachusetts Representative Marty Walsh proposed this song as the official rock song of the state.

20. Good Times Roll  The Cars (1978)            3:48

With the knowledge that the good times will roll again, in Boston, here’s a (or the?) great new wave band from Boston — possibly the second best-known Boston band (after Aerosmith)?

21. Early to Bed   Morphine (1997)            2:58

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife.” Morphine were from Boston, and fronted by the late, great Mark Sandman.

22. Night Train   James Brown (1962)            3:35

The night train stops in Boston.

23. I’ve Been Everywhere  Johnny Cash (1996)            3:15

In this song, Mr. Johnny Cash goes to Boston (among many other places).

Incidentally, if you’re a music fan, when in the Boston area, check out Planet Records (144 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, Mass.).

Peace to all in Boston today. I know the city and its people will bounce back. We always do.

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Top 12 Covers of 2012

Top 12 covers of 2012Here are the best covers of 2012!  Well, they might be.  I haven’t kept up with music as well as I’d like to this year, and so I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones.  (I’m sure I can trust you to tell what I’ve missed, in the comments below.)  Though I recognize that there is no such thing as a cassette with 22 minutes per side, I’m nonetheless dividing this into the more uptempo side A and a quieter side B.


side A

1) Acapella The Futureheads (2012)            2:28

From the FutureheadsRant, a cover of Kellis. The album, incidentally, is entirely a capella, which I think earns the Futureheads some bonus points for coolness. Below: after mucking about for a minute, they perform this song live.

2) Judy Is a Punk The New Piccadillys (2012)             1:44

I have no idea who the New Piccadillys are, but this Beatle-esque cover of the Ramones is fantastic.  The group also created a Beatles-ish video to accompany the song.  Fun.

3) Feelin’ Alright Jackson 5 (1971)             3:13

This is the sole song here that was not recorded this year.  But it’s a great cover, and the box set on which it appears was released this year.   Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls features previously unreleased material from the Jackson 5.  Listening to it, I can’t help but think that the group could have had even more hits, had these songs been released at the time.  Great stuff.  This is their cover of Traffic.

4) You Be Illin’ Carolina Chocolate Drops (2012)             3:14

From the Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ Leaving Eden, a rootsy cover of the RUN-DMC classic.

5) Time Will Do the Talking Bettye LaVette (2012)             4:05

On her latest, Thankful n’ Thoughtful, Bettye LaVette performs a song from Patty Griffin’s debut album.  Tough to choose just one cover from this album.  I also considered the album opener, “Everything Is Broken,” but I already had a Dylan cover in the second half of the mix.

6) Right Back Where We Started From Chandler Travis Philharmonic (2012)           3:25

It was also tough to choose just one cover from this CD, Superhits of the Seventies: Original Hits, Today’s Stars, a 2012 WFMU fundraising exclusive assembled by Michael Shelley.  In addition to the Chandler Travis Philharmonic‘s merrily ragged cover of the Maxine Nightingale hit, the CD includes Yo La Tengo’s cover of Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light,” the Dahlmanns’ cover of ABBA’s “Ring Ring,” and many other greats.  It’s only available to people who gave $75 or more to WFMU’s latest fundraising drive.  And you can still get it.  (If you can afford to, I’d recommend giving even more so that you can get more DJ premiums.  WFMU is the greatest freeform station in the nation, and is struggling to bounce back from Sandy.  It’s managed to get back on the air, but needs more money this year than it usually does.)


side B

7) Bloodbuzz Ohio Julia Stone (2012)           5:11

Lovely cover of the National by Julia Stone, from her album By the Horns.

8) Daydream Believer Renee & Jeremy (2012)            2:25

Beautiful, gentle cover of the Monkees’ hit — from Renee & Jeremy‘s A Little Love.

9) Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) Active Child (2012)            3:27

Active Child perform this cover of the Eurythmics’ classic at Australia’s Triple J radio station.  Here’s a video of the performance:

10) Landslide Antony (2012)            3:31

From A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac, in which Antony, the New Pornographers, Best Coast, MGMT, Lykke Li & others cover Fleetwood Mac songs.

11) Simple Twist of Fate Diana Krall (2012)           3:51

One of many fantastic songs from the 4-CD set Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan, a benefit album (for Amnesty International) featuring 128 covers of Dylan songs and Dylan himself performing “Chimes of Freedom.”

12) Video Games John Mayer (2012)              3:32

An instrumental take on the Lana Del Rey song.  In Mayer‘s rendition, it sounds like Ennio Morricone’s score for a 1960s western, or maybe incidental music for John Sayles’ Lone Star.


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Essential Holiday Tunes, Vol. 2

Essential Holiday Tunes 2Happy holidays!  A couple of years ago, I posted a mix of “Essential Holiday Tunes.”  Here is the sequel to that mix — and, yes, of course these selections are also idiosyncratic.  Unlike the previous mix, I’ve ventured a little further afield here: that is, I’ve deliberately veered towards some lesser-known songs.  Like the previous mix, this one is uptempo.  (For those interested in something quieter, I also posted a quieter, more melancholic “Blue Christmas” mix.)  I’m also posting a different song each day (some of which are featured here, and some of which are not) via Twitter, using the hashtag #FavoriteHolidaySongs

1) Now Sound of Christmas Introduction   The Free Design (1969)            0:33

The Free Design were contemporaries of (and had a comparable sound to) the Association, but never had much chart success.  Indeed, one of their songs, “2002 — A Hit Song,” pokes fun at their hit-less-ness and at pop music in general.  Only “Kites Are Fun” (the title track from their 1967 debut) cracked the top 40.  But their close harmonies and beautifully arranged orchestral pop influenced many, including Stereolab, whose “The Free Design” is named for the group.  Though they disbanded in 1974, the surviving members of the group — all of whom were siblings — reunited for one final record, Cosmic Peekaboo (2001). The group’s leader, Chris Dedrick, died of cancer in 2010.

2) Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)   Duke Ellington (1960)            4:38

Duke Ellington’s Three Suites includes his version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, from which this track comes.  If this isn’t part of your music collection, get the whole album — which also includes Ellington’s arrangement of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and Ellington’s original music for John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday.

3) Hurray for Santa Claus   The Fleshtones (2008)            1:58

From the FleshtonesStocking Stuffer, this is a cover of Milton Delugg and the Little Eskimos’ theme for the science fiction film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).

4) Santa Claus Got Stuck (in My Chimney)   Ella Fitzgerald (1950)            3:07

One of my favorite Ella Fitzgerald holiday tunes (another is on the first Essential Holiday Tunes mix). I wonder, though, is it possible to listen to this song and not think of Freud?

5) (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man with the Bag   Black Prairie featuring Sallie Ford (2012)            3:35

From the new Holidays Rule compilation, which I like nearly all of.  I particularly like the way this song opens in a minor key — gives it a slightly darker undercurrent.

6) I Want an Alien for Christmas   Fountains of Wayne (2005)            2:19

The masters of power pop give us a catchy tune on Out of State Plates, their double-CD compilation of non-album cuts and outtakes.

7) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer   The Fab Four (2002)            2:03

No, not that Fab Four.  These guys do fantastic Beatles-esque versions of holiday songs.  In this one, you get Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer performed in the style of “I Saw Her Standing There.”

8) Everywhere It’s Christmas   The Beatles (1966)            0:53

This is the real Fab Four, from their 1966 record sent to members of their fan club.

9) Feliz Navidad   El Vez (1994)            2:34

El Vez offers up a rockin’ cover of José Feliciano.  From El Vez’s Merry MeX-mas.

10) Soulful Christmas   James Brown (1968)            3:09

“James Brown loves you.”  From James Brown’s Soulful Christmas, which also includes “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year.”

11) What Christmas Means to Me   Stevie Wonder (1967)            2:28

From Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas, which includes versions of “Silver Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.”

12) Mrs. Claus Ain’t Got Nothin’ on Me   Little Jackie (2010)            2:57

This appeared on The Christmas Gig, a compilation created by Target in 2010.

13) The Merriest   June Christy (1961)            2:08

Christy is perhaps best known for her Something Cool (1954), which in addition to the title track has great performances of “Whee Baby,” “You’re Making Me Crazy,” and “The First Thing You Know, You’re in Love.”   She performed with Stan Kenton’s band in the 1940s, and retired in the mid-1960s… though I don’t know why.  It seems to me that she could have had a longer career — along the lines of, say, Peggy Lee.  This song appears on Christy’s This Time of Year (1961).

14) Silver Bells   The Yobs (1980)            2:44

A punk shredding of Ray Evans & Jay Livingston’s classic.  From the Yobs’ Christmas Album.

15) Winter Wonderland    Peggy Lee (1965)            1:54

Written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (music) & Richard B. Smith (lyrics), “Winter Wonderland” has been recorded in hit versions by over 150 artists, including two hit versions in 1946 — one by Johnny Mercer, and the other by Perry Como.  Ella Fitzgerald has a version on her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), a great holiday record.  And, yes, many great versions — Chet Baker, Eurythmics, Brian Setzer….  Peggy Lee’s recording appears on the compilation Christmas Cocktails, and (I’m sure) on several other compilations.

16) Horchata   Vampire Weekend (2010)            3:27

From Contra, the band’s second LP.

17) Little Jack Frost Get Lost   Frankie Carle with Marjorie Hughes, vocal (1947)            2:47

A swingin’ little number that deserves to be better known.  Appears on A Big Band Christmas and on other compilations.

18) Santa Claus Is a Black Man   AKIM & the Teddy Vann Production Company (1973)            3:30

An Afro-centric re-casting of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” featuring Teddy Vann’s daughter Akim.   This appears on A John Waters Christmas (2004), though without Teddy Vann’s permission.  Apparently, Vann sued Waters over it.  Mr. Vann passed away in 2009; I’m not sure about the results of the lawsuit.  I do know that the John Waters Christmas album is currently the only CD on which you can find this song.

19) Happy Christmas Baby   The Boy Least Likely To (2010)            3:31

Appears on the Boy Least Likely To‘s Christmas Special.

20) Little Drummer Boy   The Soulful Strings (1968)            3:06

“Little Drummer Boy” may be my least favorite Christmas song. I’m including it here because the Soulful Strings have recorded a really great version — the sole recording of this song that’s actually listenable.  It surprises and pleases me every time I hear it.

21) Children of December   The Slip (2006)            4:50

From the band’s album, Eisnhower, some sympathy for people born in December.

22) Just Like Christmas    Low (1999)            3:08

Here, our mix veers towards the slightly more melancholic — but only slightly.  This song, from Low’s Christmas, has an uptempo bounce (and echo-ey Phil-Spector-ish drums) that contrasts nicely with the lyrics: “On our way from Stockholm, / It started to snow. / And you said it was just like Christmas. / But you were wrong. It wasn’t like Christmas at all.”

23) Is This Christmas? [Radio Edit]   The Wombats (2008)            3:38

This appears as a bonus track on the 2008 re-release of the Wombats’ first LP, A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation.  Even more uptempo than the Low song, but with more downbeat lyrics: “Here comes our darkest end. / Christmas is here. / It’s about not extending the overdraft / to scrape out what is left / at the end of the year.”  The Wombats are one of my favorite contemporary pop groups.  I recommend both of their albums.

24) Fairytale of New York    The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (1988)            4:33

One of the all-time great holiday songs.  Love, conflict, and a little profanity, too.  Dorian Lynskey wrote a great history of the song, which ran in the Guardian last week.  I recommend it.  The piece also embeds an early demo version of the song, which is fascinating.  But go and read the article.  It’s well worth your time.

25) Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?    The Staple Singers (1970)            2:31

“Searching for light, and can’t seem to find the right star.” A no. 2 pop hit for the Staple Singers, this song originally appeared as a single.  It later appears on The Very Best of the Staple Singers. I have it from the compilation Snow 3 — The Get Easy! Christmas Collection Volume III.

26) (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding    Brinsley Schwarz (1974)            3:34

This is the first recording of the song made famous by Elvis Costello. Written and sung by Brinsley Schwarz’s vocalist Nick Lowe, the song’s message makes it apt for a holiday mix. It’s also been a source of lots of royalties for Lowe: Curtis Stigers covered the song for The Bodyguard soundtrack, which sold over 40 million copies.

27) Christmas Medley: Carol of the Bells / Melodies for the Day / O Sanctissimo    The Swingle Singers (1968)            3:11

Ending the mix with a gentle a cappella medley.  The final song on the Swingle SingersChristmastime.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  “Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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Thirty Jaunty Songs

Thirty Jaunty SongsYes.  Spring is here, which means flowers blooming and (for academics, at least) the rapidly accelerating roller-coster that is the second half of the semester.  It is thus time for some jaunty music.  Enjoy!

1)    You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams       Fats Waller and His Rhythm (1939)    2:51

How is it that this song is not more widely known and recorded?  “I’ve looked the universe over from Wack-a-nac-sac to Dover,” and… I’m aware of only two recordings: this one, and one by Peter Mulvey.  This is one of my favorites because, well, how can you listen to this and not smile?  Although I expect this song is on more than one compilation, the only place I’ve found it is Fats Waller‘s The Middle Years Part 2 (1938-1940).  The song’s composers are Al Hoffman (best known for co-writing “Mairzy Doats”), Al Goodhart (co-wrote “Fit as a Fiddle”), and Manny Kurtz.

2)    Funiculi Funicula  The Mills Brothers (1938)    2:31

Another favorite that always makes me happy.  The original Italian version of the song (1880, music by Luigi Denza, lyrics by Peppino Turco) commemorated the opening of the first funicular cable car up Mount Vesuvius. Edward Oxenford’s English lyrics retain the cheeriness but not the meaning of the original.  This song appears in more than one compilation, but it comes to you here via the Mills BrothersThe 1930s Recordings Volume 5.

3)    Alouette     The Delta Rhythm Boys (1958)    2:42

Confession: that Target ad introduced me to the Delta Rhythm Boys, whose sound seems to fall in between the Mills Brothers and doo-wop.

The Delta Rhythm Boys are a jump-blues vocal group.  They performed in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the 1950s moved to Europe, where they remained for the rest of their careers.  Perhaps this is why the group is not as well-known in their native country, and why the CDs I could find mostly seem to have been produced in Europe.

4)    Sh-Boom   The Chords (1954)    2:26

Is there a more perfect doo-wop number than the Chords’ “Sh-Boom”?  The Crew Cuts’ cover (released the same year) sold more copies, but nothing matches the original version.  This was the Chords’ sole hit.  Below, an a capella rendition, and further evidence that all popular culture will eventually end up on YouTube.

5)    Boum        Charles Trenet (1938)    2:35

This one’s in French, but includes lots of imitations of animals.  Silly and fun, from the vocalist best known (in the U.S.) for “La Mer” — the song performed (in English) by Bobby Darin as “Beyond the Sea.”

6)    A Newt Called Tiny          Wee Hairy Beasties (2006)    0:18

Delightful pun.  It’s the sort of song that, I think, should be sung on playgrounds everywhere.  Indeed, it sounds like it’s an older song, but I think the group wrote it.  Comprised of Kelly Hogan and two members of the Mekons, the Wee Hairy Beasties are a supergroup of sorts.  This track appears on their first record, Animal Crackers.

7)    Swinging on a Star         Bing Crosby (1944)    2:32

Crosby sang this song in the film Going My Way (1944).  Written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, it won the Oscar for Best Original Song.  I like the arrangement on the record better than that in the film (below), but the movie is notable for its inclusion of a racially integrated boys’ choir.

8)    Mais Que Fait La Nasa?    Paris Combo (2001)    4:04

For a few years in the late 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s, Paris Combo put out some great records.  Then,… they stopped.  I don’t know why.  I do know that they’re currently on tour.  Perhaps there’ll be new recordings soon?  There are some new demos on their website — so, I’m hopeful.  This particular song appears on their album, Attraction (2001).

9)    Love Astronaut    Murder Mystery (2007)    3:01

This extremely catchy song is from the band’s first LP, Are You Ready for the Heartache Because Here It Comes (2007).  That record contains a number of finely crafted pop songs, but this is my favorite.  After a few years of silence (at least in terms of new releases), Murder Mystery put out a new EP earlier this year: Problems.

10) Flying Home (Take B)      Ella Fitzgerald (1945)    2:30

One of the classic records to feature scat-singing, an art at which Ella Fitzgerald excels.  Her ability to use her voice as an instrument, improvising solos and syllables … is truly astonishing.  For more great scatting, check out her “Oh, Lady Be Good” (Decca, 1947), “Cotton Tail” (1967, on The Concert Years 1953-1967), and the great “Mack the Knife” (1960, on The Complete Ella in Berlin).  The box set Twelve Nights in Hollywood is also well worth your while.  This track appears on Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings.

11) Float On    Modest Mouse  (2004)    3:28

From the album Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

12) What Would Jay-Z Do?    Ben Lee (2007)    2:55

A very good question, and a happy song, too.  From Lee‘s album, Ripe (2007).

13) It’s a Great Life (If You Don’t Weaken)    Sam Lanin & His Orchestra (1929)    3:14

The song that inspired the title of Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (1996).   Lyrics by Leo Robin, music by Richard Whiting and Newell Chase.

14) Pick Yourself Up  Fred Astaire (1936)    2:56

Composed by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, the song appears in Swing Time (1936), one of the great Astaire-Rogers films.  Not that you asked, but the other great ones are Top Hat (1935), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Shall We Dance? (1937).

15) On the Sunny Side of the Street    Louis Armstrong (1937)    2:55

Composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, this song can be found in versions by Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey (with the Sentimentalists), and Dinah Washington.  Louis Armstrong’s recording is one of the earlier versions — the song made its debut in a 1930 Broadway musical.

16) The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)      Simon & Garfunkel (1966)    1:43

“Hello, lamppost. What’cha knowin’?”  One of Paul Simon‘s more whimsical compositions, this appears on Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966).  Below: Simon and Garfunkel on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.

17) Sweet Georgia Brown       Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli (1938)    3:08

I first heard this song (whistled) as the theme to the Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine, which aired on Sunday mornings from 1974 to 1976.  Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli’s rendition reaches you here via the compilation Swing from Paris: The Quintette of the Hot Club of France (ASV/Living Era). Music composed by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard.  Kenneth Casey’s lyrics do not appear in this rendition.

18) Linus and Lucy     Vince Guaraldi (1968)    2:59

More commonly known as the Peanuts theme, Vince Guaraldi‘s song makes its debut in Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown (1964), appearing again in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and many subsequent Peanuts productions.  This particular recording appears on Oh, Good Grief! (1968).

19) Il sole è di tutti       Franco Micalizzi (1968)    1:58

From the soundtrack to the film of the same name.  Appears on The Original Masters: Italian Comedy 60′s, Vol. 1

20) Ad Ogni Costo (At Any Cost)      Ennio Morricone (1967)    2:53

Continuing the theme of Italian film soundtracks from the 1960s, here’s one of the greatest Morricone tunes.  It appears in the film of the same name, and is on many compilations.  But it comes to you here via Cocktail Mix Volume 4: Soundtracks With a Twist!

21) The Liberty Bell March     Her Majesty’s Royal Marines & Lt. Colonel G.A.C. Hoskins (1992)    3:20

You know it as the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but this John Philip Sousa piece is an American military march composed in 1893.

22) Whatchamacallit    Esquivel (1958)    2:33

From Esquivel‘s Exploring New Sounds in Stereo (1958).

23) Le fate (m8)           Armando Trovaioli (1966)    1:16

Returning to Italian film soundtracks from the 1960s, here’s the title song from the film of the same name.  This track appears on The Original Masters: The Film Music For Alberto Sordi.

24) Mah Na Mah Na   Mah Na Mah Na (1969)    1:54

Composed by Piero Umiliani for Svezia, inferno e paradiso, the song achieved lasting fame via its long association with the Muppets.

25) It Don’t Mean a Thing       Duke Ellington with Joya Sherrill, Marie Ellington and Kay Davis, vocals (1945)    3:01

“It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot. / Just give that rhythm everything you’ve got!”  Composed by Duke Ellington (music) and Irving Mills (lyrics).

26) Tobacco Auctioneer          Don Byron (1996)    2:36

Composed by Raymond Scott but performed by Don Byron and co., this recording appears on Byron’s Bug Music.

27) Soul Bossa Nova (Original Mix)       Quincy Jones & His Orchestra (1962)    3:11

Probably best-known today for its appearance in the Austin Powers films, the song made its debut on JonesBig Band Bossa Nova (1962).

28) The Mesopotamians          They Might Be Giants (2007)    2:58

On my imaginary radio station, this song was a big hit.  From They Might Be GiantsThe Else.

29) Bongo Bong          Manu Chao (1999)    2:56

Manu Chao‘s song first appears on his record Clandestino (1998), but this version comes from the compilation World Playground: A Musical Adventure for Kids (1999).

30) Particle Man          Mrs. Belaire’s second grade class, Ottawa Elementary School (Buchanan, MI), music director Tim McCarthy (1990)    2:06

The greatest cover of any They Might Be Giants song ever appears on Then! The Earlier Years.  The original version is on TMBG’s Flood (1990).

 

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