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Posts Tagged ‘1972’

No More Good Time in the World For Me

August 10, 2016 | by

The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.

All photos: Bruce Jackson.

All photos by Bruce Jackson, brucejacksonphotography.us.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.

During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.

These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three. 

At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared. Read More »

On Transcribing the Lyrics to Pop Songs

August 2, 2016 | by

A still from “Prisencolinensinainciusol”

Still from Adriano Celentano’s music video for “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”

You really can’t tell what a song is going to look like until you type it, and that fact itself is interesting to me. When you listen to a song, for instance, you don’t know whether its “stanzas” are in quatrains or tercets or what. The stanzas and line breaks you install when you type the lyrics simply were not there before you typed them. They were not in your head, and they were not really in the song either. 

You discover all kinds of things. For example, I recently typed up the words to Cream’s “White Room” (1968). Before doing that, I didn’t know that the song does not rhyme. If someone had asked me if it rhymed, I would’ve had to sing it to find out. It somehow seems like it rhymes? But how is that possible.

I go around telling people that 99 percent of songs rhyme. Is that true? It might not be. Maybe songs all seem like they rhyme, but when you actually check … ? Read More »

Existentially, I’m Getting a Hamburger

October 26, 2015 | by

I watched the 1972 film adaptation of Play It As It Lays the other day; the whole movie is streaming on YouTube for free now. I wanted to reject it outright because its mood was not exactly the same as the novel’s—the quality of the bleakness was different. But, I mean, when you think about it, what would you want a movie of Play It As It Lays to look like?  Read More »

Swamp Thing

January 7, 2014 | by

Bobby Charles album cover

Cover of Bobby Charles's 1972 album Bobby Charles.

When it gets cold, profanely cold, anesthetically cold, I like to put on humid music. It doesn’t cut the wind chill, but it helps. In a pinch, one could depend on Dick Dale or calypso; in dire straits, even a Key West bromide like Jimmy Buffett’s “Boat Drinks” gives off enough balm to suffice. But while such songs have heat, they lack humidity. At the risk of sounding like a sleazy bandleader: if you really want to thaw out, you’ve got to sweat.

Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, soon to be reissued on vinyl for possibly the first time since its 1972 release, is perfect for the job: it has the languor and stickiness of an August day in New Orleans. Battered but amiable, Charles, a Louisiana native who died in 2010, sings with the slightest of rasps through ten tracks of rhythm and blues, alternately bustling and lumbering. He strikes me as a man who knew how to take his time. His is the sort of music people like to describe as “homegrown” or “country-fried,” though both adjectives feel too tinged with condescension to apply here. In deepest winter, the mere sight of Bobby Charles’s cover is a salve. It has a brown-and-green palette both earthy and eye-popping. What felonies wouldn’t you commit to be that man, or that dog, reclining in such tauntingly verdant swampland? Read More »

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