The Eclectic Musings of Bob Dylan

image courtesy of The Telegraph

I consider Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour one of the musical highlights of the early 21st Century. Each week from May 2006 to April 2009, for an hour Dylan aired a sort of parody of an AM radio show, except that the songs weren’t the latest hits from the Hot 100 but an eclectic, carefully curated set of tunes based on particular themes, like drinking, divorce, summer, etc.

Here are the songs from Episode 14, The Devil, compliments of Wikipedia.

  1. “Me and the Devil Blues” – Robert Johnson (1936)
  2. “Satan is Real” – The Louvin Brothers (1958)
  3. “Friend of the Devil” – Grateful Dead (1970)
  4. Devil In Disguise – Elvis Presley (1963)
  5. The Devil Ain’t Lazy – Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (193 ?)
  6. Christine’s Tune (The Devil in Disguise) – The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
  7. Suzanne Beware of the Devil – Dandy Livingston (1972)
  8. Devil In His Heart – The Donays (1962)
  9. Must Have been the Devil – Otis Spann (1954)
  10. Devil’s Hot Rod – Johnny Tyler (1955)
  11. Devil Got My Woman – Skip James (1931)
  12. Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea – Count Basie & His Orchestra with Helen Humes (1939)
  13. Devil With A Blue Dress On – Shorty Long (1964)
  14. Devil’s Haircut – Beck (1996)
  15. “Race With the Devil” – Gene Vincent (1956)
  16. “Way Down In The Hole” – Tom Waits (1987)
  17. “Go Devil Go” – Sister Lille Mae Littlejohn (1948)

In between songs Dylan plays the part of an avuncular DJ, telling jokes, taking calls from fictitious listeners and actual celebrities, and most interesting to me, providing oral liner notes on the history of the musicians and songs. Suffice to say that his knowledge of popular music is encyclopedic, as indeed the wide-ranging selection of musicians and genres of Episode 14 suggests.

Dylan brings the same spirit and encyclopedic knowledge to his just published tome The Philosophy of Modern Song. The book, a compilation of observations of 66 songs, runs 339 pages and is richly illustrated with photographs, movie posters, magazine covers, vintage advertisements, postcards, and paintings. Even non-Dylan fans might enjoy flipping through and checking out the illustrations.

Dylan doesn’t really analyze the songs, but instead paraphrases them in riffs often rendered in second person. For example, here’s his take on “Money Honey,”  a Jesse Stone song made famous by Elvis:

“This money thing is driving you up the wall, it’s got you dragged out and spooked, it’s a constant concern. The landlord’s at your door, and he’s ringing the bell.  Lots of space between the rings, and you’re hoping he’ll go away, like there’s nobody home.  You stare through the blinds, but he’s got a keen eye and sees you. The old scrooge has come for the rent money for the 10th time, and he wants it on the double, no more hanky-panky.”

This jaunty, somewhat down-home prose is reminiscent of his DJ persona’s voice (and might be the way he actually speaks for all I know).

And again, as in Theme Tme Radio, Dylan sometimes provides background by the way of bio.

After paraphrasing Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” Dylan provides some history:

“Eddie Arnold grew up on a farm, but he also worked in the mortuary field. He was managed by Colonel Tom Parker, who eventually dubbed him “the mortician plowboy” — not even Solomon Burke could call himself that.”

At other times, he philosophizes. Here’s the tail end of his treatment of Pete Townsend’s “My Generation”:

“Today it’s commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So when you’re watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,’ it contains layers of irony that writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined [. . .]

“Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before them with the same arrogance and ego driven self-importance that previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them.”

My approach is to listen to the songs via YouTube and read the lyrics, then read Dylan’s take. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m learning a helluva lot and discovering songs I’ve never heard of. Of course, you  can jump around, say from Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” on page 85 to Warren Zevon’s “Dirty Life and Times” on page 191, but I prefer to go in order, one revelation at a time.

His Town, My Town, Our Towns

What a wonderful stroke of luck to be born and grow up in a quaint town like Summerville, South Carolina, with its verdant, lush, flowery neighborhoods and old-fashioned downtown one-story shops and cafes. Of course, nowadays, the nowhere-that’s-everywhere sprawl of Walmarts, strip shopping centers, and hotel chains have grown outward from the town proper, creating traffic tie-ups and spritzing stress. Nevertheless, to live in the Old Village, on Sumter[1] Avenue, let’s say, is to reside in a lovely neighborhood that hasn’t changed significantly in nearly a century. Perhaps terrestrial and architectural beauty counteract humans’ inherent inclination to seek adventure because many natives spend their entire lives in Summerville.

408 Sumter Avenue

These thoughts have come to me this gorgeous May 11th after listening to Robert Earl Keen’s cover of James McMurtry’s minor masterpiece “Levelland,” an anti-ode that dismisses an uninspiring town in west Texas. McMurtry was born in Fort Worth and grew up for the most part in Leesburg, Virginia, the son of the celebrated novelist Larry McMurtry.[2]  Nevertheless, his first-person narrator comes across as a living, breathing human being born and bred in an American wasteland.[3]  Unlike the unrestless denizens of Summerville, he can’t wait to get the hell out of a town that makes Dodge look like an oasis of cultural richness.

from a real estate ad for land for sale in Levelland, TX

Here’s the first stanza:

Flatter than a tabletop
Makes you wonder why they stopped here
Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one
On the great migration west 
Separated from the rest
Though they might have tried their best
They never caught the sun
So they sunk some roots down in the dirt 
To keep from blowin’ off the earth
Built a town around here
And when the dust had all but cleared
They called it Levelland, the pride of man
In Levelland.

What follows is a family history fraught with agricultural hardship and the depletion of the land, his grandaddy growing “dryland wheat,” his daddy growing cotton “so high” that it “sucks the water table dry” while “rolling sprinklers circle round bleedin’ it to the bone.”

He’s seen jets flying overhead and has promised himself he won’t be in Levelland when the soil “dries up and blows away.”

In Keen’s rendering, the last stanza ends in an insistent heroic thrust as the narrator engineers his escape.

Mama used to roll her hair
Back before the central air
We’d sit outside and watch the stars at night
She’d tell me to make a wish
I’d wish we both could fly
Don’t think she’s seen the sky
Since we got the satellite dish and
I can hear the marching band
Doin’ the best they can
They’re playing “Smoke on the Water”, “Joy to the World”
I’ve paid off all my debts
Got some change left over yet and I’m
Gettin’ on a whisper jet
I’m gonna fly as far as I can get from
Levelland, doin’ the best I can
Out in Levelland – imagine that.

I suspect, alas, that even in picturesque Summerville, many mamas haven’t seen the waning of the moon in the nighttime sky since the advent of cable television and social media.

And yes, some of us natives do move away – I, though, only about thirty miles to a town not unlike Summerville, a community with Spanish moss and small shops, though with a greater influx of tourists and many more drinking establishments and restaurants per capita.

Folly Beach isn’t exactly Summerville by the Sea. It’s more like, to echo Winston Foster, aka Yellowman, a “little Key West.”

It, too. is about as flat as you can get, but it’s no Levelland, though; come to think of it, no one has come close to writing such as good song about Summerville or Folly Beach as McMurtry has about the desolation of that West Texas hellhole.


[1] The towns of Sumter and Clemson share the strange linguistic quirk of having an invisible P-sound in their pronunciations.

[2] James went to Woodberry Forrest School and studied English and Spanish at the University of Arizona. By then, his father was back in Texas living in an “little bitty ranch house crammed with 10,000 books.” [BTW, the Wikipedia version of this quote (cited here) irritatingly had the period outside the quotation marks]. But since this post is perhaps riddled with typos, I should perhaps STFU.

[3] Of course, creating true-to-life characters is what fiction’s all about. In this sense, James is Larry’s son.

Song Lyrics as Opposed to Poetry, George Fox Edition

George Fox, photo by Caroline Tigner Moore

Generally, when I first listen to a song, I don’t pay much attention to lyrics. If I dig the melody and beat – as the boppers used to say on Bandstand – I’ll start paying closer attention to the words, and if the diction is clever or thought-provoking, all the better.

After all, it’s really rare to encounter lyrics that possess the compression and structural integrity of poetry, i.e., to find songs with words that can stand alone on a page and engage sans musical accompaniment.

My friend George Fox’s latest song – so new that it’s still untitled – comes close to accomplishing this rare feat. The song, which consists of three verses followed by a chorus, distills a lifetime in four-and-a-half minutes and does so employing diction, imagery, and structure that reinforce and embody the song’s central theme, what Andrew Marvell famously dubbed “time’s wingèd chariot.” George wrestles with the metaphysics of time, the illusive nature of past, present, and future, and how a lifetime passes [cliché alert] in the blink of an eye.

The song begins with a callous youth speeding through life in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina:

Just eighteen, driving an old pickup truck,
Joint in the ashtray and a bed full of luck.
Running nowhere as fast as I can
Down an Orangeburg County washboard road
Not enough sense to take it slow.
Rolling Stones singing “Street Fighting Man.”

Here, the theme of speed is introduced, and we have our first bit of compression in the allusion to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which melds the attitude of the the speaker in the Stones’ song with George’s narrator, both young men fueled by the fire of youthful exuberance.

What’s a poor boy to do but “run nowhere as fast as [he] can?”

The chorus shifts to the present, and again, we have speed, the idea of chasing “the dying light,” or as Marvell puts it in “To His Coy Mistress,” although “we cannot make our sun /Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Yet, in the last line, the speaker comes to the realization it’s always now, that the past and future only exist in the present and meaning lies in perspective, depending on where “you’re standing.”

Right outside of your window, just outside your door,
Everything is waiting for you
To fall into the night and chase the dying light.
There’s no need to be gentle.
Sometimes it’s heaven, sometimes it’s hell.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
All depends on where you’re standing.
I stand before you now, and I see it written in in the clouds,
All that was and is and could be is now.

In the video below you can check out the first verse and chorus from a live performance at Chico Feo’s Monday Night Singer/Songwriter Soapbox, which George emcees. The song is a work-in-progress, and for me, it’s thrilling to see it evolve on stage, as George experiments with phrasing and gestures.

In the second verse, the middle verse, the narrator finds himself suddenly middle aged, “thirty-three/With two little boys sitting on my knee” and has come to know “how love is made,” but swoosh, suddenly, with the days having flown by “like a midnight train,” he looks down to see, not his sons, but his granddaughter Eliza Jade.

Turned around and I was thirty-three
With two little boys sitting on my knee,
And I realized how love is made.
The days flew by like a midnight train.
The years fell on me like the pouring rain.
Now I look down and see Eliza Jade.

The last stanza arrives like a melancholy last act, with “second guesses, another last chance, and one more shot.” Once again, the radio is playing, not “Street Fighting Man,” but “a brand new song” saying “the same old thing” but “still get[ting] it wrong.”

Second guesses are all I’ve got,
Another last chance and one more shot.
And how I got here I don’t even know.
The radio plays a brand new song.
It says the same old thing they still get wrong
Oh man, and so it goes.

And so it goes – a lifetime distilled into a handful of words.

I could go on about structure, how the number three is central to the architectonics – three six-line stanzas, three nine-line choruses, the narrator citing at one point his age is thirty-three, but you’d think I was overdoing it, and you’d be wrong. If it’s there, it’s there, whether the artist planned it or not. Making art is like dreaming, it comes from below, often surprising the artist him or herself.

By the way, George’s band Big Stoner Creek has a new album out. You can check it out HERE.

PS. Here’s an earlier rendition of stanza three and the concluding chorus:

“The Best Bad Dylan I Ever Saw”

In a not so shocking development, Bob Dylan’s coming to Charleston, South Carolina, in his Never Ending Tour.[1]

The cat’s indefatigable: March 16, Austin, March 18 Shreveport, March 19 New Orleans, March 21 Montgomery, March 23 Nashville, March 24 Atlanta, March 26 Savannah, March 27 Charleston . . . [2]

And the beat goes on, as they say.

I just checked the last set list from December of 2021, and if you’re planning to attend a show, I strongly suggest purchasing the album Rough and Rowdy Ways because a majority of the songs performed (at least in December of 2021) come from the album, his first album of original songs since 2012.

Here’s the first paragraph of Jon Parleles’ review in the Times:

Latter-day Bob Dylan is for die-hards. His voice is tattered and scratchy, not always bothering to trace a melody. His lyrics can be cryptic or throwaway when they’re not downright bleak. His music is adamantly old-fashioned, and he’s not aiming to ingratiate himself with anyone.

And the last:

And in “Black Rider,” a string-band ballad that tiptoes along, pausing each time Dylan takes a breath, he addresses a mysterious figure — Death, perhaps — with alternating sympathy and aggression. “Don’t turn on the charm,” he warns. “I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.” For all he has seen and sung, on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” Dylan refuses to settle down, or to be anything like an elder statesman. He sees death looming, but he’s still in the fray.

I should add, perhaps, that his shows are for die-hards as well. Sometimes, because he has changed the melodies and his voice is indistinct, you might not recognize a song, even an iconic one like “Blowing in the Wind,” until it’s almost done.

Obviously, I’m one of the die-hards, and I’ve seen some fantastic concerts, one in Columbia, SC, in 1988, one at the North Charleston Coliseum in which he played a killer electric guitar, and my favorite, at the Orange Peel, a bar in Asheville, during the 2004 election campaign.

I’ve also seen some less than stellar shows, the worst outside at the Joe with Willie Nelson as the opening act.

But I’ve never seen one quite as bad as my pal, fellow die-harder, Jeremy Jones described to me last night at Low Life, one of Folly’s coolest spots. Anyway, I’ll let Jeremy tell it.

“The best bad Dylan I ever say was at the Saegner Theater in New Orleans. He was as drunk as a skunk. The band went into the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watch Tower,” and he stumbled to the mike and started singing “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the band was like, what the? I mean it was absolutely fantastic.”

This occurred in the Aughts, so I suspect we’ll not witness something so conjunctificated, but if we do, I’ll be smack dab in the middle of Row A in the orchestra, if Dylan and I are still among the quick, that is.

illegal photo by my son Ned Moore

[1] It began 2 June 1988 and has featured 3,066 shows and counting. Of course, one day it will end, when ol’ Bob succumbs to something or another. Certainly, Keith Richards will be named one of the pallbearers.

[2] No wonder is voice is raspy.

Elegy for the Mixed Tape

Elegy for the Mixed Tape

I think it was John Woodmansee who made me my first mixed tape, an eclectic collection of avant garde rock, Third World exotica, and jazz. He curated with care, making sure transitions were smooth, the Venn diagram of intersecting genres shaded with similarities, whether in pop-lit theme or in sonic overlapping – the B-52’s “Love Shack” followed by Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song,” for example. He labored over these productions, devoting hours into the effort of creating a gift both enjoyable and educational. 

Music as mutual friend.[1]

I, too, started making mixed tapes, mainly for students as rewards for significant achievements, like winning the year-end vocabulary bee or scoring the highest on our cumulative high school literature test. Occasionally, a former student runs across one of these relics and posts a photo on Facebook.

Amy Sexhauer’s award for being crowned Vocabulary Queen
Allison Zachery’s award tape

I also recall that ace student Larry Salley received one loaded with Stax classics, and he later played the tape over the stadium speakers before Porter-Gaud football games in his early days as the Cyclones’ announcer.

Jungle drums and tragic magic! 

1-2-3! 

“Land of 1,000 Dances!” 

“Slip Away!” 

“Think!” 

“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay!” 

“Mustang Sally!”

As I became better at producing mixed tapes and eventually mixed CDs, I did my best to match the music to the student’s personality. When I produced compilations for friends or acquaintances, I’d throw in tunes that probably hadn’t heard, cuts like Les McCann’s and Eddie Harris’s “Compared to What” from their Live at Montreux Jazz Festival 1969. It was actually a helluva lot of fun assembling these auditory collages – unlike, I would argue, creating and sharing a set list.  

What’s the difference, you ask? Physicality, that’s the difference. You can hold a mixed tape or CD in your hands. The folks at the Oxford American learned this the hard way. I subscribed to the OA last year to receive the CD included in their annual music edition, but when they replaced the CD this year with a playlist available through Spotify, I – and apparently many others – dropped the subscription. Guess what? Now the CD is back.

Furthermore, unlike on a playlist, time and space are finite on a cassette tape or compact disc. On cassettes, which needed to be flipped, I’d arrange the tracks as if they were appearing on an LP, the first songs on Side A and B rockers, the last cuts strong and long, like Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves.”  The limitation of space and time lends itself to compression, which enhances meaning, like in good poetry. You’re talking an hour’s drive instead of an open-ended series of songs. Most play lists lack form, resembling a radio broadcast rather than an artifact. They tend to be assembled rapidly – eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

My wife Caroline brought the topic Friday night at Harold’s Cabin as we lamented over Jamesons the sad state of incivility that characterizes post-Trumpian politics. Caroline cited the disappearance of the mixed tape as contributing to the on-going diminishment of cultural exchange. People long for the mixed tape, hence its image has become a meme, its miniature form dangling from charm bracelets and necklaces. I’ve seen it also on t-shirts. 

Perhaps, people gravitate towards images of mixed tapes because they represent a simpler, more three-dimensional, more concrete era before screens hypnotized and isolated us. Picking up my stepdaughter Brooks from Porter-Gaud in the afternoons, I see most students, heads bowed, staring down at their phones rather than bopping across the Green with a group of friends.

Streaming music isolates us; mixed tapes and CDs bring us together.

Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Compared to What?”

[1] Mixed tapes are a great early courtship gift that allows the would-be beloved a peek into the aesthetic inclinations of the CD bearing courtier. Does it feature Rashaan Roland Kirk or Garth Brooks? These things matter.

Roll On, Roll On . . . 

photograph by Wesley Moore, a.k.a. I-and-I, a.k.a. Yours Truly

The night before last, Caroline and I saw the Rolling Stones for the second time in three years, which, as we say in Summerville, ain’t nothing. We had lunch yesterday with Tom and Kathy Herman in Little Five Points, and Tom told me that the Atlanta show was the third show he’d seen in the current tour.[1]

For this concert, his tickets were in the pit to the right of the stage and ours smack dab in the middle, just beyond the end of the jutting runway. Not surprisingly, the closer the proximity of the performers, the more expensive the ticket, and, hence, the more geriactic the concert goer.  In fact, most of the people around us could have been cast in the movie Cocoon, though they sported Stones’ tee-shirts and knew the words to every song. The ashen old man in front of me smiled broadly, swaying feebly as he held his phone aloft to record “Midnight Rambler.”  Yet, he left early. Standing up for three straight hours was too much for him.

Not for seventy-eight-year-old Mick. He danced, clapped, dervished, sang, stuck his tongue out a la the logo, a lean but amiable Dionysian machine, his on-stage persona friendly, making sure to mention local landmarks, addressing the audience as if he appreciated their presence.  Of course, on this evening, he gave a shout-out to the World Champion Atlanta Braves. 

Keith, on the other hand, seemed – to put it mildly – less robust. Ronnie Wood took up most of the guitar duties and killed it while Keith slowly wandered around playing mostly rhythm. Occasionally, while Ronnie was screeching a solo, the jumbotron showed Keith.

Still, the cat also turns 78 in December, and it ain’t like he was propped on a stool. If Charley Watts is/was the heartbeat of the Stones, Keith is its soul, conveying the darkness of the blues, howling wolves, muddy Mississippi waters, hearts shattered like beer glasses on the floors of Delta juke joints.

Keith is a walking, talking memento mori.

The set list for this show featured rarely performed “Shattered” from Some Girls and “She’s a Rainbow,” a period piece from the Stones’ blessedly short-lived foray into psychedelia. Of course, you can’t always get what you want, but I would have rather heard “Beast of Burden” from Some Girls and, if you wanna go obscure, why not “The Spider and the Fly” from Out of Our Heads, a truly great album, which also features “Play With Fire,” which would have been more than a worthy substitute for “She’s a Rainbow.”

Flashback: I guess I was about sixteen when I first heard “The Spider and the Fly,” and, I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I found the following lyrics disgusting:

She was common, flirty, she looked about thirty 
I would have run away but I was on my own 
She told me later she’s a machine operator 
She said she liked the way I held the microphone 
Then I said “hi” like a spider to a fly 
Jump right ahead in my web.

Yuk, thirty years old! Who would want to go home with a thirty-year old?

Yes, young readers, the cliches are accurate, a blink of the eye, calendar pages riffling, being torn off by the winds of time in a black-and-white movie that your great grandparents watched for a dime a second ago. 

However, to quote my man Andrew Marvell:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun 

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

In other words, after a Stones’ concert, you can either limp back to the hotel and retire, or hit the hotel bar, which at the Omni boasts a balcony overlooking the skyline, which on this particular night looked downright Boschian. As we sipped our drinks, Caroline regaled me with stories from her wanderings in North Viet Nam in the previous century as the sun dropped below the horizon of the British Empire.

And when we returned to the hotel room, we continued our conversation, talking about this and that, looking out over at another view of Atlanta, not wanting to go to sleep, yet looking forward to tomorrow, to our lunch with Kathy and Tom.

view from the hotel bar balcony

[1] By the way, Little Five Points is a funky, mural-rich blip of Bohemia in an otherwise seemingly staid state capital. Outside a vintage clothing shop, I ran into this fellow dressed up like Dr. John, complete with voodoo hat and tooth necklace, plus the male version of Dorthey’s ruby slippers from Oz.  I said something like, “Hey, mon, dig the Doctor John get-up.” His response, a blank contemptuous look.  I asked, “You’ve heard of Doctor, John, right?” He said no and asked me if I had ever heard of some bullshit name like ‘Magnifico, Light Bringer” and then proclaimed that he was Magnifico, Light Bringer, a magician, and then launched into this puffed-up Jesus spiel. I interrupted by saying “party on,” and split, though I felt like stealing the Tom Waits line and saying, “You know they ain’t no devil. That’s just God when he’s drunk.”

mural in Little Five Points, photograph by Caroline

My Sweet Tooth Says I Wanna, But My Wisdom Tooth Says No

Jamaican reggae musician, singer and producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry performs at Poppodium De Flux, Zaandam, Netherlands, 8th April 2018. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Here’s what I’m not going to write about today:

Not about the Murdaughs of Colleton County whose family drama has entered the terrain of Greek tragedy, a once proud House suffering a Faulknerian fall akin to the Compsons’ collapse.

The Murdaugh saga commenced with drunken redheaded USC junior Paul Murdaugh crashing his boat and killing a passenger, followed by his and mother’s murder, their bodies discovered by father/husband Alex at the family hunting lodge. This weekend as Alex changed a tire on a country road, a bullet allegedly fired from a truck grazed his head. On Labor Day, he checked himself into rehab after resigning from his law firm amid accusations of missing millions. We’re talking two mini-series worth of real life Southern gothic mayhem that out-Outer-Banks Outer Banks.

Have at it, Netflix screenwriters. I’ve got better things not to do.

Not about Fletcher Henderson, underappreciated, who transformed Dixieland into Swing, led a big band that employed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, a band that provided the soundtracks for the Harlem Renaissance and Terrytoon animated shorts.

Fletcher Henderson

Not about Gandy Goose cartoons, an LSD substitute for tots, Gandy and pal Sour Puss bopping along, the jazz soundscape providing syncopation for the herky jerky action of the animation, often dream sequences with metamorphoses galore. BTW, Gandy Goose and Sour Puss sound as if they could be a Jamaican Dance Hall duo a la Yellowman and Fathead.

Not about Dub Shaman Scratch Perry, Reggae producer extraordinaire, mentor to Bob Marley, Scratch ping-ponging in the studio from synthesizer to guitar to drums in a creative dance that makes music rather than the music making the dance. An incredibly important figure in 20th century music that virtually no one has heard of.

Not about cherubic grandson Julian Levi Moore who just celebrated his two-month birthday.

So, that’s it. What are you not writing about today?

Wesley’s One Hit Hall of Fame

For whatever reason, the ol’ cerebral jukebox this morning had the 1966 novelty hit “Winchester Cathedral” playing in my head. Chances are you’ve never heard this New Vaudeville Band tune even though it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary R and R song that year (despite not being a rock-n-roll song). It features someone named John Carter singing through cupped hands a la Rudy Vallée singing though a megaphone.[1] On December 6th it displaced the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” as the number one song in the US. Believe me, I’d much rather have “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” stuck on replay on the ol’ cerebral jukebox. “Winchester Cathedral” is inane, irritating, obviously catchy, or otherwise it wouldn’t be lying dormant in my unconscious for fifty-five years.

The tune got me thinking about one-hit wonders, those special songs that for whatever reason memed[2] their way into becoming mega hits, songs like “The Monster Mash,” “Snoopy and the Red Baron,” “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas.”[3] However, not all one-hit wonders are novelty songs. In fact, some of my favorite pop songs are one-hit wonders. Here be my top five, not necessarily in order of preference.

“96 Tears” (? and the Mysterians)

 “96 Tears” might be the grandaddy of all garage band hits, and some say (according to Wikipedia) that it played a role in the genesis of punk rock. I don’t know about that, but Springsteen has covered it, which speaks volumes.  It also came out in 1966, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

“Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” (The Swinging Medallions)

Although written by Don Smith and Cyril Vetter and first recorded by Dick Holler and the Holidays in 1963, it’s the South Carolina Beach Band The Swingin’ Medallions who made it a hit in ­– yes, you’ve guessed it – in 1966.  Damn, what an infectious, party hoot, and ladies and gentlemen, I actually heard Springsteen cover it live in 2008 at the North Charleston Coliseum. In fact, the Boss opened the show with it, hollering something like “How’ bout some Beach Music?”

“A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harem)

This moody, somewhat surreal, 1967 song provided an apt soundtrack for my doomed infatuation with fellow freshman Francine Light. I can see her now, standing across the cafeteria in her green tartan skirt and matching knee socks. O, woe was me!

Walk Away Renée” (The Left Banke)

When I began this little project, I had no idea that four of these favs were recorded with in a year of each other. This sad love song made it to number 5 on US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Despite its lush orchestration, flute, and harpsichord, I still sort dig it after all these years, not so much for its music but because of the memories it evokes.

“Wipe Out” (The Sufaris)

This is for my money the quintessential surf song, released in 1963 and covered by every garage band in my hometown of Summerville, SC, including The Marijuana Brass, an instrumental brass band modeled on Herb Albert. 

A couple of observations. Three of the five feature organs (a harpsichord doesn’t count) and all were recorded about the same time during my junior high days. Of course, there have been subsequent one-hit wonders I’ve enjoyed like “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”  Oh, yeah, and “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and “Sweet Soul Music” by Arthur Conley beat the hell out of my top five, but I don’t care. 

Maybe hormonal imbalance played a role. Anyway, this exercise has effectively effaced “Winchester Cathedral” from its seemingly never-ending loop, and for that I’m very thankful.


[1] Chances are you’ve also never heard of  Rudy Vallée, Chances are, however, you’ve heard of Frank Sinatra, who covered it on his 1966 album That’s Life. Go figure.

[2] Verb, to meme, to catch on culturally, from the noun meme, an element of culture “selected” by the masses because of its contagious appeal. (Forgive me, Richard Hawkins).

[3] “Loving You Has Made Me Bananas begins with these immortal words:

    Your red scarf matches your eyes.

    You closed your cover before striking.

    Father has the shipfitter’s blues.

    Loving you has made me bananas.

The Late Nanci Griffith’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms”

The very best Christmas present I ever received from an in-law is Nanci Griffith’s masterpiece Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of covers from songwriters who influenced Griffith’s own music making. My sister-in-law Linda Birdsong gave it to me in 1994, saying she thought I’d enjoy it. Understatement of the century Clinton years.

I ended up purchasing ten or so more CDs to check out the work of some of the featured songwriters, which include Kate Wolf, Vince Bell, Townes Van Zandt, Frank Christian, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Malvina Reynolds and Harry Belafonte, just to name fourteen.

The magic begins with a cover of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” an incredibly beautiful composition that embodies concretely the passage of time in both terrestrial and temporal images.

Here are the first three verses, but I encourage to go to YouTube (who won’t allow me to embed a link) and check out a live version:

I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ‘stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away

I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago

Although they’re all excellent, the next song that blows me away is the third cut, Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” a duet Nanci performs with the great Arlo Guthrie. 

Other personnel featured on the album include Dylan himself, who plays harmonica on “Boots of Spanish Leather” and Guy Clark on the Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi.” Also, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement are sprinkled about, and the final cut “Wimoweh” features Odetta, the Indigo Girls, John Prine, James Hooker, Holly and Barry Tashian, John Gorka, Dave Mallet, Jim Rooney, and Nanci’s father Marlin Griffith.

Demonstrating just how much of life is fraught with loss and longing, the overall mood is melancholic with “From Clare to Here” (featuring Peter Cummin), Jerry Jeff’s “Morning Song for Sally,” Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament,” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” (featuring John Prine who wrote the song).

Of course, Nanci produced an admirable body of work herself, and she’s certainly going to be missed. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a lovely person, generous, intelligent, somewhat scholarly.

Sad, sad, sad.