Amoeblog

(In which we consider some swinging, singing sisters.)

Posted by Job O Brother, May 16, 2011 01:26pm | Post a Comment

 
WAR!
The Boswell Sisters vs. The Andrews Sisters


Last blog, we took a long, almost invasive and menacing look at one of my favorite harmonizing groups, The Ravens. This time, let’s meditate on two groups and the epic chaos that emerged from their earth-shattering battle for supremacy. Yes, we’re going to focus on the blood-thirsty Boswell Sisters and those daughters of doomsday, The Andrews Sisters. (This blog is not for the squeamish and will include death, destruction, and delightfully catchy melodies.)

Many people are already familiar with The Andrews Sisters, and because you, dear reader, are a person, I am including you in this assessment. What these same many people often don’t realize is that The Andrews Sisters actually based their act on another trio of singing siblings, The Boswell Sisters.

The Boswell Sisters were born in the first decade of the twentieth century and, in a show of musical savvy, they chose to be raised in New Orleans, the American music Mecca. By their teens, Martha, Connee, and Helvetia (they were given individual names to make communication in the house more efficient) began singing in movie theatres and on local radio shows, cultivating small celebrity and earning free popcorn.

By the early 1930’s their desire for greater success, along with Helvetia’s having developed a corn allergy, led them to move to New York City. They recorded some records and integrated themselves in the thriving jazz scene. Middle-child Connee proved herself to be a deft and original arranger of music and, against the common practice of the day, was allowed greater freedom to change the standards she and her sisters sang. This earned her respect among her musical peers, even though some choices Connee made were less popular than others. (For example, their 1931 recording of I Thank You, Mr. Moon, in which Connee changed the key of the melody and re-wrote the words as I Will Slit Your Shaking Throat and Drink Your Hot Gushing Blood, Mr. Moon - it was subsequently changed back to the original lyrics.)

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(In which we celebrate the birth of Tiny Tim.)

Posted by Job O Brother, April 13, 2011 09:05am | Post a Comment

This week would have seen the birthday of beloved (and truly alternative) musician Tiny Tim, who passed away in 1996 from an acute case of death.

He matters to me because I cannot think of him without feeling a lovely little warmth in my normally cold, cold heart.

Recently, the (coincidentally-named) Amoebite posted a swell interview regarding Tiny Tim, but I wanted to tackle this subject, too – particularly because I am less burdened with fact and honesty and can therefore flesh out what may be as-yet-unknown facets of the artist’s life and career.


Tiny Tim, before puberty ruined everything

Tiny Tim was born Herbert Khaury on April 12, 1932, in a town just south of Duchess County called New York City (not to be confused with the song "New York City" by Hanoi Rocks). Many historical records list his parents as being people, though this is speculation, and any actual witnesses have long since not been asked.

Young Herbert was given the nickname “Tiny Tim” by locals in his neighborhood because of his habit of walking around on crutches, munching Christmas puddings and asking God to "bless them, every one." (Other nicknames were bestowed as well, such as “that cripple kid who smells like stew” or “faggot,” but none of these stuck.)

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(Où l'on considère les chanteurs français.)

Posted by Job O Brother, March 22, 2011 04:32pm | Post a Comment

When you work at Amoeba Music there’s certain questions you answer over and over again:

“Where’s the restroom?”

“Why’s this one this price and this one this price?”

“Where can I find Edith Piaf?”

That last question is occasionally (to my endless amusement) pronounced as, “Where can I find Edith Pilaf?” to which I always want (but never) answer:

“We file her in-between Condoleezza Rice and Tim Curry. They all go great together.”

My internalized snarkiness aside, I’m all for Edith Piaf. Who could hate La Môme Piaf (her French nickname, literally translated as “That short woman in the black dress with the amazing voice but tragic make-up which someone should seriously having a talking-to-her about”)?

But I think too many people stop with Piaf and don’t investigate the chanson française of her peers, which is a shame because there’s so much to love. Below I offer some performers I think are à l'opposé de terrible.

Lucienne Boyer

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(In which we consider Paul Robeson.)

Posted by Job O Brother, February 7, 2010 03:22pm | Post a Comment

Harry Houdini vs. Laurie Anderson

My actual heroes in this world are few and disparate. From Harry Houdini to Laurie Anderson, from John Lennon to Mrs. Mary Eales, they reflect people who may inspire and impact me with their art, their political activism, their bold-faced chutzpah, or any combination thereof.

But perhaps no one embodies all these traits to such heightened super-awesomeness for me than the great Paul Robeson.


Rad.

Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1898. His father was an escaped slave-turned-church minister; his mother was from a Quaker family, and died tragically when Paul was six, which isn’t funny at all, so don’t laugh.

Paul received a full academic scholarship to attend Rutgers University, which I hear is a pretty good school, though I’ve never been there myself because I’m allergic to schools. Seriously. If I even step foot on a campus I start itching, sweating, and my head comes completely off and falls to the ground and rolls away.

While attending Rutgers, Robeson distinguished himself as one of the finest football players. He was valedictorian of his class, which allowed him to excuse himself from class to get water from the drinking fountain without the need of a hall pass.

Robeson went on to study at Columbia University. He continued to pursue sports and also performed on stage in theatrical productions. Sadly, it was during this period that his mother died a second time. The young Robeson soldiered on despite grief, occasionally finding solace in rowing, sometimes in boats, other times, less successfully, in giant holes dug into the earth by mole-people.

It was also at Columbia that he immersed himself in language studies – an interest that would come into play throughout his life. He would become fluent or near-fluent in twelve languages, with many more languages represented in his musical repertoire, such as Russian, Japanese, Yiddish and Klingon.

In 1921, Robeson married Eslanda Cardozo Goode, and while their marriage lasted until her death in 1965, it wasn’t a monogamous relationship, and saw near divorce when Paul was going through his (historically misunderstood) “lederhosen phase.” They gave birth to one child, a son, Paul Robeson, Jr. (It’s interesting to note that he was not named after his father as many people assume, rather an entirely different Paul Robeson of no familial relation, who’s similar moniker is merely a remarkable coincidence.)


"I love looking at floors with you, honey..."
Paul Robeson & Eslanda Cardozo Goode

Robeson became increasingly popular as an actor and singer. He found acclaim performing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello, which, though the character is black, was most often played by white dudes in blackface. He also originated the role of Joe in Show Boat, one of the most significant pieces of American musical theatre.


The ballad "Ol’ Man River" from Show Boat would come to be Robeson’s signature song. It was through his insistence that the original lyrics were changed from…

Ol' man hamburger,
Dat ol' man hamburger
He mus'know ketchup
But don't say pickles
He jes'keeps grillin’
He keeps on grillin’ along.


…To the now famous lines we know today. Throughout his career, and reflecting his increasingly political beliefs, he would continue to change the lyrics to the song, transforming it from a soulful but depressed ballad to a defiant and triumphant call for justice and equality.




Robeson and his wife moved to and lived in England for a little over a decade, until the outbreak of World War II. During this period, Robeson starred in a variety of films – many of these roles being strong, dominant men and profoundly disturbing to the more racially intolerant American audiences. Besides the film version of Show Boat, perhaps Robeson’s most famous film was The Emperor Jones, an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play he had also starred in on Broadway. The movie had a scene in which Robeson’s character killed a white man – a first in film at that point. This scene was cut for U.S. audiences, some of whom were enjoying scrumptious bags of buttery, hot popcorn! Yum!


His radio performances of pro-American songs during the War won him national celebrity. It was also during this time that he did other stuff and, y’know, things. He probably ate some good food, talked to peeps – whatever. I mean, I don’t have any evidence, but the odds are pretty good. I’m guessing he probably didn’t vanquish fire-breathing dragons and steal their treasures, or follow dwarves into underground caverns where he learned to forge weaponry from enchanted silver, but again, this is speculation based on educated guesswork. I can’t know everything, people!


Robeson’s travels and interest in cultures exposed him to the suffering and hardships of the poor and working-class. His fight for racial equality evolved into a fight for equality of social classes. Increasingly, he saw the capitalist structure as an oppressive force. He became more outspoken about his politics, supporting many controversial, socialist institutions. His support of the newly founded U.S.S.R. invited generous and heated criticism from the conservative and paranoid U.S. government and conservative and paranoid white supremacists.


Robeson sacrificed his career and reputation to fight against injustice as he saw it. He was vilified and persecuted by those in power. Like fellow crusader Martin Luther King, Jr., Robeson was under constant surveillance by the FBI and CIA. Between 1950 and 1958, Robeson’s passport was confiscated by the U.S. Government, who wanted to suppress his political activism. Also, they were mad at him for not inviting them to his totally awesome pool party.


By the early 1970’s, as hella cool hippie types began to undermine the controlling grip of right-wing squares, there was a resurgence of appreciation for Paul Robeson. By this time, poor health and exhaustion led him to keep a low profile. He lived in his sister’s house in Philadelphia, until he passed away there in January of 1976. Since then, he has recorded no new songs, though there have been talks about a possible side-project with T.I..

Paul Robeson is my hero because he is everything I want to be when I grow up: a Renaissance man, skilled in sport and the arts, a linguist, a brave and noble fighter, never shrinking from the dictates of his conscience, and totally mother-effing handsome. I wish there were a lot more like him.



(Before which the author's mother visits.)

Posted by Job O Brother, July 6, 2009 02:58pm | Post a Comment

That's my Ma, milking the cow. (The cow is the one with horns.)

This past week my dear, sweet Ma came for a visit. Her time here flew by quickly; we entertained ourselves with long walks, stories from her youth, and cooking-related reality TV. I also introduced her to one of my best friends in the whole world: absinthe.

She has a new iPhone, but her fear of technology had limited her use of it to – get this – making phone calls! I mean, what’s the point of a phone if all you do with it is call people? That’s so 1990’s! So I introduced her to all the things her new phone could do: map out directions, take photos, slay red dragons, make chocolate sprinkles, cure melanoma and make other kinds of chocolate sprinkles. She was quick to learn and I expect she will soon be filling my email inbox with pictures of my nephews, her tomato plants, and chocolate sprinkles.

In honor of her visit, I have assembled the following short list of things she loves, in hopes that you, too, may find some joy in them. If you’re not interested, don’t worry – she’s very easy-going and non-judgmental, and won’t take offense. I, however, will hunt you down like a dog and slay you. With my iPhone.

Glenn Gould


Chopsticks!

One of the most famous classical pianists of all time, and still controversial, Glenn Gould was the very definition of an eccentric genius. Most famous for his interpretations of J.S. Bach’s music for keyboard, Gould also championed modern composers, such as Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg, while frequently disparaging more popular composers such as Frédéric Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, finding their works often insincere and unsatisfying (a sentiment, incidentally, I share with Gould).


Gould died at age 50, leaving behind a rich and compelling catalogue of recordings and a few pairs of very rank smelling gloves.

In addition to some more traditional documentaries, there’s a film entitled 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould that provides an entertaining (perhaps more than deep) look at this musical prodigy.


He also provides the soundtrack for my Mother’s iPhone ringtone.

His Hand in Mine – Elvis Presley


Ma was raised in the church, where she played organ, piano and served as choral director. She also arranged flowers and… I dunno – probably designed the stained-glass windows, too. The church was in Florin, California, which had been mostly populated by Japanese farmers until, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced the Japanese into concentration camps – an event that seems remarkably absent from our consideration of American history.


Florin, California (circa what I'm talkin' about)

Anyway, at this time in Florin, there was really nothing to do but milk cows, watch the strawberries grow, and participate in church functions, which is what so occupied Ma’s time. Playing music served as one of Ma’s few truly fun activities, and her association with old hymns remains a positive one, although her belief in the traditional tenants of Protestantism has been replaced by something more akin to Shirley MacLaine’s persuasions.

If you want to see Ma’s eyes glaze over in bliss (and you know you do) I suggest spinning this album from Elvis Presley.


Carlos Montoya

Another controversial, artistic genius Ma gravitates towards is the flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya.


"Mine! All mine! Ahahahahahaha...!!!"

Montoya is renowned as much for his agility at playing guitar as he was for his ability to fly. He could fly in the air of his own volition and remains the first and only human in history to do so. It was on Montoya that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based their superhero creation, Superman. This resulted in Montoya suing the comic writers in a case that was ultimately settled out of court, with Montoya being paid off in raisins, his favorite between-meal snack.

The following song was composed by Montoya for his wife, Lois, who would eventually divorce him, complaining that his willingness to work for dried fruit made life with the musician “crazy-making” and “mostly fucked.”


My Ma may have returned to the glorious state of Northern California, but she remains an eternal houseguest in my heart …where she is currently building a pulpit and brand-new steeple.
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