Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Simple Gifts

Songs are amazing things. So simple (verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - verse - chorus) but so powerful. One of President Obama's best lines, in his election night acceptance speech, alluded to Sam Cooke's civil rights' song, "A Change is Gonna Come":
"It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." - Barack Obama

"There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will" - Sam Cooke
Independent "freeform" New York radio station WFMU celebrated Obama's inauguration with an hour of versions of "A Change is Gonna Come" (including one by Montreal band Arcade Fire). The Library has versions on CD by Seal, Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin (but, alas, not Sam Cooke!) You can read about the song in Peter Guralnick's excellent books:
There must be something in the air as two CBC Radio programs have focused on books about songs in the past couple of days. On Sunday on Tapestry, very enthusiastic guest host Robert Harris talked to author Bill Henderson about his book Simple Gifts: One Man's Search for Grace. Henderson's book recounts how a chance encounter with a hymn so moved him that it brought him back to the church he left as a youth. On Tapestry they talked about the stories behind two of them, "Simple Gifts", and "Amazing Grace". [Listen to both songs on Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel's CD Simple Gifts.]

As Harris and Henderson noted, the latest wrinkle on the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts" happened at Obama's inauguration. The super-quartette of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill performed (or pretended to perform apparently) "Air and Simple Gifts", a piece John Williams arranged for the inauguration based on Aaron Copeland's arrangement of "Simple Gifts". Many might be most familiar with the tune via "Lord of the Dance", a song written by English musician Sydney Carter in 1963 using the melody with new lyrics. Canadians like me might remember the song thanks to Canadian musician John Allan Cameron ("The Godfather of Celtic Music") who performed the song on his 1970s-era TV shows on CTV and CBC. I have a suspicion that my childhood home had an LP with the Irish Rovers performing the song as well! And just last year the rock band Weezer used a bit of the tune on their song "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)". on their "Red" album. A memorable tune never dies!

Today on Q on CBC host Jian Ghomeshi talked to Ted Anthony about his book Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (2007). [Listen to the podcast here] Edmonton writer Barry Hammond called the book "one of the best reads this year" in Vue Magazine. Anthony writes of his obsession with the song most of us know as "House of the Rising Sun" by 1960s English rock band, the Animals. But that version is just one of hundreds of versions of the song, and Anthony's book is his story of his research and travels around the world to discover more about it.

Finally, another intriguing book looking at the power of song: I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure as Related in Popular Song by Graeme Thomson. The review in Toronto's Eye Weekly last week gave it 4 stars, noting:
"Graeme Thomson’s book is more than just a cornucopia of the splendidly grim and myriad ways we speak of death in rhyming couplets backed with a catchy beat. It’s a brain-teasing query into the strange, abstract place death occupies in our culture. That’s not to say it isn’t fun. He begins with a mad dash through death’s appearances in songs — from folk and murder ballads to teenage death songs of the late 1950s."
Have a look at Thomson's blog for more notes on deathly music.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

3:19 p.m.  

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