It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Blogging)

My favorite Bob Dylan song is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.)” It’s not the one I listen to the most, and it’s not the one I’ve given the most effort to singing or playing. But it’s the one that sounds the most “Bob Dylan-y,” the one that combines all of his many influences into the most singular whole. A close runner up would be “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but while that song has remarkable lyrics, it’s melodically pretty conventional. “It’s Alright Ma” is rivetingly strange on every level.

Steven Rings wrote this epic study of the song’s evolution over the past 45 years, and if you’re at all interested in Bob’s music, it’s a must-read. It’s the closest musical analysis of Bob I’ve ever seen. Reading Rings’ paper and doing listening with fresh ears has made me realize that “It’s Alright Ma” is stronger musically than lyrically. This is true of a lot of Bob’s songs, his literary reputation notwithstanding. On the page, he can have a dated Holden Caulfield quality. But when you hear his words sung, or better yet, when you sing them yourself, they’re as fresh as they ever were. Continue reading

Participatory music vs presentational music

In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.

Turino divides music into four big categories:

  1. Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
  2. Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
  3. High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
  4. Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.

Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:

Aymara ceremony

Shona witch doctor

Contra dancers in New Hampshire

This last group might strike you as the odd one out. Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a jazz concert.

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The state of the lullaby

Anna wanted to know what my friends are singing to their kids for lullabies. I posted the question on Facebook and got about fifty times more responses than I was expecting. Since I now have all this (highly unscientific) data about lullaby trends in 2014, I figured I would write it all up. Here’s what I found.

The most interesting commonality is the song “Hush Little Baby.” Many people report singing it, and my mom sang it to me. But it’s more complicated than that. Jonathan C says:

I made up about 50 couplets of “Hush Little Baby” over many consecutive tortured hours in 2006, and somehow we’ve remembered them all and still use them. It was a good rhyming puzzle to keep me sane at night.

As soon as I read that, I tried it out on Milo, and it was super fun. I recommend it.

Rewriting the lyrics is an especially good idea because, as several people pointed out, the original song is quite depressing. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a series of unsatisfying things that don’t address your basic emotional need.” A number of other traditional kids’ songs are similarly depressing. My mom sang me “You Are My Sunshine” and “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean” as a kid, and while their melodies are beautiful, their lyrics are full of pain, loss, and disappointment. And don’t even get me started on “Rockabye Baby.” I sang it to Milo exactly once; never again.

Anyway, here are all the other tunes that my Facebook friends use for lullabies.

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Beatboxing and mashups are the new folk music

Thompson, Tok. Beatboxing, Mashups, and Cyborg Identity: Folk Music for the Twenty-First Century. Western Folklore, Spring 2011, 71-193.

Thompson’s provocative thesis is that folk music of the present is either produced entirely digitally, or is performed with the specific intent of imitating electronic sounds. Furthermore, the oral tradition intrinsic to folk music is now substantially taking place via the internet.

Thompson begins with a discussion of beatboxing, which began on the streetcorners of US cities, but has spread to every corner of the internet-using world, primarily via YouTube. Beatboxing may seem far afield from digital audio, since no form of music could be more “organic” or body-centered. But beatboxing began as a substitute for drum machines and samplers, and to this day, beatboxers strive to sound as much as possible like turntables, samplers and digital editing software.

Beatboxing enjoyed a brief and narrow popularity with hip-hop listeners in the 1980s, but since then it has vanished from the commercial landscape. For the most part, it is a form practiced and taught for creative gratification only. This satisfies Thompson’s requirement that a folk form be non-commrcial. While we traditionally associate folk music with specific regions, YouTube creates its own communities of shared musical vocabulary that transcend countries and continents. The best and most virtuosic beatboxer I’ve heard in many years was a young South Korean, visiting New York to busk the subways.

Again with the virtuoso Korean subway beatboxer

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Where does the “Egyptian” melody originally come from?

I know this melody as the cartoon snakecharmer song. Here’s a kid playing it on bass clarinet:

I’ve always wondered where the Egyptian melody came from. It turns out to be hundreds of years of old, and goes by many different names. You can find an excellent capsule history of it in William Benzon’s book Beethoven’s Anvil. The context is a discussion of a Louis Armstrong recording from 1928 called “Tight Like This.” Listen at 2:04 as Louis quotes the “Egyptian” melody and varies it a few times.

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Jay-Z and Alan Lomax

Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?

Alan Lomax, hip-hop composer?

I learned the answer from Creative License: The Law And Culture Of Digital Sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola. It’s a companion book to the invaluable documentary Copyright Criminals. The story of Jay-Z and Alan Lomax isn’t quite as epic a copyright fail as the Biz Markie lawsuit or the story of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” but it’s still pretty absurd.

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Harmonica guide

I started learning harmonica in high school. It was the first instrument I learned voluntarily, not counting my ineffectual middle school attempt at classical cello. As a teenager, my obsession with the Grateful Dead was at its high water mark. The Dead’s first frontman, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, was a more than respectable blues harmonica player. Through the Dead, I got exposed to all the blues and country greats. I forget exactly how and why I started playing harmonica myself, but it’s probably because it was inexpensive and looked easy. I started with Country And Blues Harmonica For The Musically Hopeless by Jon Gindick, which I enthusiastically recommend.

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Bach and Paul Simon

Since it was Easter yesterday, Anna wanted to listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while we pottered around the house.

A certain passage grabbed my ear, a hymn called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” — in English, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

This beautiful tune was immediately familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Anna says she’s sung it many times in church. Bach didn’t write it; the text is an older Latin poem translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, set by Johann Crüger to a secular love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” by Hans Leo Hassler.

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Meet the major scale

The C major scale is the foundation that the rest of western music theory sits on. If you master it, you get a bunch of cool chords and scales for free, along with a window into a huge swath of our musical culture.

How to form the scale

Imagine an ice cube tray with twelve slots, one for each note in the western tuning system, labeled like so:

[C][C#][D][D#][E][F][F#][G][G#][A][A#][B]

To make the C major scale, you just remove all the ice cubes with # in their names, like so:

[C][ ][D][ ][E][F][ ][G][ ][A][ ][B]

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Music theory for beginner guitarists

Most beginner guitarists start by learning the same fifteen chords, usually called the “standard fifteen.” I’ve also heard them called the open chords because they make use of open strings and are thus easy to play:

A A7 Am
B7
C C7
D D7 Dm
E E7 Em
F
G G7

For fingerings, have a look at wikipedia or any book on beginner guitar. You can also see this handy web site, which plays audio of each chord along with the fingerings.

It’s not much good to just memorize the standard fifteen chords without musical context. It’s better to learn them grouped together into keys, so you can hear how they relate to each other. Family Guy explains how this works using the key of G. I apologize for the filthiness of the opening joke, but then it actually turns into a good music theory lesson.

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