Tag Archives: music

The Roots of Cowboy Music: ‘This Is the Music We Made. This Is the Land We Made.’

At MTV News, Oakland writer Carvell Wallace travels to Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and reflects on what it means to be black and American.

I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.

I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.

But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.

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A History of American Protest Music: How The Hutchinson Family Singers Achieved Pop Stardom with an Anti-Slavery Anthem

Hutchinson Family Singers, 1845

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,170 words)


On March 18, 1845, the Hutchinson Family Singers were huddled in a Manhattan boarding house, afraid for their lives. As 19th Century rock stars, they didn’t fear the next night’s sellout crowd, but rather the threat of a mob. For the first time, the group had decided to include their most fierce anti-slavery song into a public program, and the response was swift. Local Democratic and Whig papers issued dire warnings and suggested possible violence. It was rumored that dozens of demonstrators had bought tickets and were coming armed with “brickbats and other missiles.”

“Even our most warm and enthusiastic friends among the abolitionists took alarm,” remembered Abby Hutchinson, and “begged that we might omit the song, as they did not wish to see us get killed.”

It wasn’t that most people didn’t know the Hutchinsons were abolitionists. The problem was that slavery (as well as its parent, racism) was an American tradition, and performers who wished to be popular did not bring their opposition onto the stage. Five of our first seven presidents, after all, were slaveholders. Read more…

Milo. Kind of Our Fault.

The Beach Boys, 1965

Iain Martin, former senior editor at The Sunday Telegraph and current columnist at Reaction, muses on finding the Beach Boys on YouTube, why the Telegraph made room for incendiary characters like Milo Yiannopoulos, and the impact of doing so.

The voracious appetite for clicks hasn’t been without cost.

Milo had plans for Telegraph blogs. Lots of plans. And suddenly, for a brief period, he was the Telegraph’s visionary guru handing out internet kool aid to us baffled and sceptical hacks and to the seriously talented people then in charge of the site. He was parachuted in to meetings with the company’s leaders where he mapped out his vision of a Telegraph at the forefront of a millennial media revolution.

This all sounds ridiculous now. Hell, it was ridiculous then. But it was before we had all realised that Facebook and Google were not our friends. They were going to suck up all the ad money and kill all but those with the sense to charge for quality content. We didn’t know that then. Anyway, the ferocious pace of change in media at that point, and the need for novelty, for an answer, any answer, meant that a character like Milo (a charismatic conservative chameleon) could walk right in.

With hindsight, I failed miserably in my responsibility as comment editor and should have made a stand. I was not alone in this. Quite a few other experienced executives thought the Milo for clicks experiment would blow up but we agreed in the pub that there was no point being near the scene of the explosion.

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Breaking Elgar’s Enigma: Cryptographic Genius or Crackpot?

In New Republic, Daniel Estrin writes about how a former insurance adjuster claims to have solved the 118-year-old cryptographic mystery of the hidden message in Edward Elgar’s infamous Enigma Variations.

And far from the ivory towers of music academia, mostly on his blog, Elgar’s Enigma Theme Unmasked, Bob Padgett has emerged as perhaps the most prolific and dogged of all Enigma seekers. His solution, which has caught the attention of classical music scholars, lies at the bottom of a rabbit hole of anagrams, cryptography, the poet Longfellow, the composer Mendelssohn, the Shroud of Turin, and Jesus, all of which he believes he found hiding in plain sight in the music.

Over the course of seven years of work, and in more than 100 detailed blog posts, Padgett identified about 40 other clues that support his theory, weaving a confounding web of musicological, literary, theological, and historical references.

There is another way to experience music, and that is Padgett’s way: to dissect it, to learn its grammar, and, ultimately, to borrow a phrase from the sequence of coded letters he discovered, to know it better. For Padgett, who is very religious, wrestling with Elgar’s work is akin to studying the Bible. It is reassurance that a grand, intelligent design exists. “For him, it’s a religious text,” his wife told me. “But he didn’t want to go on faith alone. He wanted solid proof.” “I’m an outsider, you know. I’m not one of these credentialed academics. I’m not published,” he said.

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“BRAAAM!”: The Sound that Invaded the Hollywood Soundtrack

Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2016 | 15 minutes (3,902 words)


You walk into a local multiplex a few minutes after the lights have dimmed. You find your seat to the first trailer, some confection involving superheroes or zombies. As the light flickers over you, strings churn from the speakers, interrupted at certain intervals by a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier.

Does this sound familiar? At some point movies started braying at us like ships lost in a fog, and we have come to accept that as perfectly normal. Variations on this sound sequence — a simple string motif interrupted by sudden bursts of non-melodic noise — are everywhere in film soundtracks and trailers. It is the noise that goes with people in spandex standing in a Delacroix-style tableau, or so Hollywood has decided. It is the sound we know is coming when a trailer intercuts CGI objects slamming into each other with portentous fades-to-black.

The internet and the sound’s creator refer to it as BRAAAM. (If you think you’ve successfully avoided it, here’s a sample). It may sound synthetic, but it’s usually produced with brass instruments and a prepared piano. Although it has its roots in a scoring style composer Hans Zimmer employed for much of the early ’00s, the BRAAAM heard in seemingly every trailer was first recorded for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and has been adapted, copied, and even outright sampled ever since. Is BRAAAM something that happened to us, or is it something we, as moviegoers, desired?

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The Story of ‘Ella and Louis,’ 60 Years Later

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)

Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.

The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.” Read more…

Searching for the Missing Children of Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ Video

In any case, he said, the video was “an opportunity to provide massive exposure to a huge segment of the population that may not routinely see missing child photos, and making whoever sees these photos think, I might be able to do something. I might have actually seen this person.” So Allen agreed to help Kaye and the band. But first, he extracted a promise from Kaye: If any child were recovered, his or her photo must be immediately removed from circulation and replaced with the photo of another missing child. What this meant, in practice, was that if things went according to plan, Kaye would have to repeatedly recut the video.

When the video debuted in May 1993, 13 children were featured. Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Wiles was the first to come home.

At MEL Magazine, Elon Green looks back at the making of Soul Asylum’s hit video for “Runaway Train,” and the missing children who were featured.

Iggy Pop’s Brand of Experience

Iconic punk progenitor Iggy Pop is touring through the US this spring, and I caught his show in Portland, Oregon last month. As a huge Iggy fan, this tour was no small deal to me. Iggy delivered. Despite new physical limitations, he gave everything his body could give, and the set list of new and old tunes like “Some Weird Sin” and “Repo Man” was a fan’s dream. Ticket prices were not.

Three months earlier, Iggy revealed that he’d recorded a new album in secret with musician Josh Homme. Stephen Colbert featured a debut live performance. The New York Times ran a story. It was savvy marketing. Named Post Pop Depression, the album has generated lots of excitement because it’s Iggy’s first since 2013, and because Iggy, as Homme said, “is the last one of the one-of-a-kinds.” The album even peaked at number one on the Billboard charts ─ Iggy’s first number-one album. But with concert tickets ranging from $50 to $125 (and as high as $400 on the secondary market), people were grumbling.

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One Man’s Quest For His Vinyl and His Past

Eric Spitznagel | Old Records Never Die: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past | Plume | April 2016 | 8 minutes (2,029 words)

Motivated by a potent mix of seller’s regret and old-dude nostalgia, a journalist sets off in search of the vinyl of his youth. And not just copies of albums he loved—Eric Spitznagel wants the exact records he owned and sold. It’s a premise that musician Jeff Tweedy describes as “not… entirely insane” in his preface to the book.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Old Records Never Die. You decide.  Read more…

The Making of Janet Jackson’s ‘Control,’ 30 Years Later

The way our studio was set up back then was we had a control room where our mix board was and all that stuff, then there was a little lounge right outside with a couch. She was out there sitting and when I put it on, I could see her starting to move a little bit to it, then she got what we called “the ugly face.” The ugly face is something you get when something is really funky. She said, “Ooooh, who is that for?” I replied, “It can be for you, if you want it.” She said, “Oh. I want it.” That song turned into “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” The rest is history. It became the first single.

-Producer Jimmy Jam, at Red Bull Music Academy, reflecting on his and Terry Lewis’s work with Janet Jackson on her smash hit album, Control, released in 1986. The album included hit singles “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Let’s Wait Awhile,” and the No. 1 track “When I Think of You.”

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