Saturday, September 16, 2017

For the Love of Songs

I love songs. I think it's kind of amazing that we have this storehouse of music to draw from, thousands of songs to listen to, play, re-interpret, sing around campfires or on front porches with friends. Gospel songs, country songs, love songs and murder ballads, handed on from generation to generation. Call it the Great American Songbook, with its various chapters titled, Show Tunes, Cowboy Songs, Train Songs, Story Songs, The Blues, etc.

To me this is a chunk of our history every bit as inspiring as Mount Rushmore, say, because it is living history, continually expanding and deepening. It can make me feel downright patriotic! It is one of the great achievements of the American people, a kind of national self-portrait in song.

As a kid I learned to love songs as songs (as opposed to songs as vehicles by which to admire your favorite rock star). In school we sang Steven Foster and Woody Guthrie tunes and their lyrics seemed like fine poetry to me. Then of course there were the pop songs on the radio, one after the other, little 3-minute gems that take up permanent residence in your mind, so that even just one note can bring the whole song back.

In the rock era, two attitudes developed, which actually caused many in my generation to ignore or demean this precious resource. First, we baby boomers developed the notion that the good was to be found exclusively in the new. If it's old, it's probably bad.  Radio stations played "the latest hits," and that's all. Of course not everyone had this attitude (as the folk revival of the 60s demonstrates) but it was widely prevalent. The second nefarious idea that was adopted by many in my generation was the notion that you weren't a great musician unless you wrote all or most of your own music. Maybe this started with Dylan or the Beatles, but the idea is just plain silly. My favorite musicians love the "songbook" and are frequently adding its gems to their repertoire. To me, the musical possibilities provided in the pages of the "songbook" are positively inspiring, and to ignore it is not to prove your genius but to reveal your ignorance.

Youtube is an invaluable tool for song-lovers like me. You look up a song, and you get to choose from dozens of versions. Sometimes I like to sample several renditions of the same song, discovering a wide range of interpretive possibilities. This morning I got interested in looking up the music of John Loudermilk. He died a couple of years back at the age of 82. He wrote the songs "Tobacco Road," "Indian Reservation," "Now You Can Tell Me Goodbye," and "Abilene," among others.

"Tobacco Road," for one, has entered the songbook. It's one of those tunes that seems ageless, like a mountain or a river, a permanent part of the landscape (or songscape), so it comes as it of surprise to find out it was only written in 1960. These songs about growing up in constricted circumstances are legion, but Tobacco Road is the example without equal, the granddaddy of them all. I recall most readily the Eric Burden version and also Edgar Winter's memorable take, but of course the covers of this song are countless. Here's the 1964 version from The Nashville Teens:

Another favorite Loudermilk piece is the country song, Abilene. I listened to Bobby Bare's version this morning. Loudermilk's classic tune falls into that category of songs where the singer is not where he wants to be. He's far from home and longing to go back. In this case, back to Abilene.

That's all for now. I'm headed out today to go to a bluegrass festival and soak in some old songs. In the meantime, be sure to listen to some old songs today!

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